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Powerlifting helps brave para-athlete turn tragedy into triumph

Updated: 2023-09-16 10:13 ( Xinhua )
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YINCHUAN — Lying on the bench, Ma Zhifu took a deep breath, lowered the weighted barbell to the chest, held it motionless, and then pressed it upward with a low grunt.

After three referees raised their white flags to indicate a successful lift, Ma screamed with excitement, "Finally, I made it!"

In the recent Paralympic Games in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Ma, a 54-year-old para-powerlifter, pocketed his first gold medal in the men's 49kg category on his competitive debut.

Ma is a farmer from southern Ningxia's Guyuan city, located in Xihaigu, a region once deemed "uninhabitable". His life was irrevocably changed 20 years ago, when he fell while working at a construction site.

The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. After two decades in a wheelchair, Ma suffered from muscle atrophy in his lower limbs. In contrast to his skinny legs, however, he has strong and muscular arms.

Before the camera, Ma proudly flexed his muscles, showing bulging biceps and triceps. "This is the result of my training," he says.

Before becoming a powerlifting athlete, Ma lived a reclusive life. The accident stripped him of his dignity, leaving him incontinent and unable to take care of himself. Devastated, he shut himself away for years.

In 2021, Ma joined a rehabilitation program, which is a tailormade training camp for those suffering from spinal cord injuries, hosted by the local Disabled Persons' Federation.

Designed to rebuild shattered lives, the program taught people like Ma basic living skills, such as how to maintain basic hygiene and move themselves from the wheelchair to bed.

During the training camp, Ma discovered that his instructors, some with injuries even more severe than his, are national champions in wheelchair racing. Taking them as role models opened up a new world for Ma.

When he heard that Ningxia was about to hold the region's first Paralympic Games, Ma immediately signed up for powerlifting and started practicing at a local training base in the city.

Without enough strength, his arm trembled, even when lifting just the bar. After a month, Ma returned home and continued training with farm tools such as shovels and rakes to build up his strength.

A gym owner heard Ma's story and offered him free use of all his equipment. Since the gym is over 10 kilometers from Ma's home, he installed a motor on his wheelchair in order to "drive" there, practicing on a daily basis to stay physically active.

Each and every lift he makes is him pushing the boundaries of his physical strength. Seven months later, Ma made three attempts in the competition, lifting from 35kg. In his last attempt, he hoisted 42kg, almost equivalent to his own weight.

The competition is of great significance, says Guo Qinghong, chief referee of the powerlifting competition. "As the first Paralympic Games in Ningxia, it has set records for future para-athletes to break, goals to strive for and examples to follow," he adds.

Ma says: "As long as I still have the strength, I will continue training and keep on challenging myself."

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