With 'eyes,' visually impaired athletes sprint toward light of dreams

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Standing on the track, Wang Yan helped Li Haimei, who was wearing a blindfold, stand in the starting block and gave her a pat on the shoulder, signaling that the run would start soon. On hearing the gun, they quickly dashed forward, speed and rhythm perfectly in sync.

Li, 33, is a para track-and-field athlete who competes in the T11 category at the ongoing Paralympic Games in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which kicked off on Friday.

The category is for runners with complete visual impairment and requires a sighted guide to run alongside them.

As they sprint ahead, a ten-centimeter rubber band connects Li's left wrist to her guide, Wang Yan's right. Throughout the 100-meter race, Wang runs closely beside her, mirroring her every move while making sure she stays on the right track.

Within just 17 seconds, the duo crossed the finish line and won the gold medal.

"I'm so happy to win and I couldn't have made it without my guide," Li said after the race.

Six months ago, Li was still working at a blind massage parlor. At the time, becoming an athlete was nothing but a distant dream for her.

Suffering from congenital visual disabilities, Li lost her eyesight at an early age. With only blurred visions, she had barely stepped out of the house in the past decade, only staying at home to care for her child.

When she heard that Ningxia was about to hold the first Paralympic Games in the region, Li's heart pounded. "I want to go out and 'see' this colorful world before going completely blind," she said.

After signing up for the competition, Li joined a special training camp with other disabled athletes in the region and practiced running for several months.

For the visually impaired, overcoming the fear of darkness is the toughest part. "With no sense of direction, I'm just too scared to take a step forward," Li recalled.

Every blind runner needs a sighted guide as their "eyes". The guide can help the disabled stand in the starting block, stay within their lane, and remind them of every turn.

Thanks to them, running is no longer a lonely pursuit. In the training camp, Li has paired up with many guides, mostly sighted para-athletes.

"The guide gives me the courage to run boldly forward," Li said. At first, it was hard for Li to even finish 100 meters, but now she can run for an hour without taking a break.

As the competition neared, the training camp paired the visually impaired runners with young professional athletes from local sports schools.

With a few practices, Li and her guide, the 17-year-old Wang Yan, quickly built up trust and tacit understanding. Their strides and frequency are perfectly in sync as they sprint for the line.

"They are actually quite sensitive about direction," said Wang, adding that even with the slightest tilt of the arm, Li will immediately realize that it's time to go up the bend.

"I have complete trust in my guide," said Qiao Guoshuang, a visually impaired athlete who has won first place in the men's T11 category of the 200-meter race. "Only with absolute trust, can we cooperate well and do our best in the competition," he added.

Among the 17 million visually impaired people in China, only a few walked out of their homes and even fewer are brave enough to take up sports.

With evident sports talent, the 21-year-old Qiao became a para-athlete in 2015 and has since then participated in multiple national-level competitions. However, he accidentally fell and hurt his sacrum in the training, which almost ended his athletic career.

Even though this is his last competition, Qiao said there are no regrets, "I'm very lucky to have such an excellent guide, and we have formed a close bond."

After the game, Qiao will return to his hometown, where he opened a massage parlor with the help of the local Disabled Persons' Federation.

A brand-new life also unfolds for Li. "From now on, I want to live for myself," Li said she will keep on running and aims to participate in the 12th National Paralympic Games in 2025. 

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