#WheelchairFencing65: Yu Chui Yee makes history on Paralympic debut
Hong Kong’s Yu Chui Yee could not have imagined she would make history on her Paralympic debut at Athens 2004 and go one to become one her country’s most decorated Paralympians.
Nine years before, at the age of 11, she was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Casting her mind back Yee describes the experience from the perspective of the resilient, optimistic child she was.
“I’m an active girl, I love going out to play and playing sports but I don’t have a particular sport that I’m good at. I was a happy girl, so when I got diagnosed with bone cancer, I did not actually notice that I got a serious disease. I thought I may have to stay in hospital for a couple weeks or months. It was only when I started chemotherapy I noticed it was quite a serious disease, but during the treatment period, I didn’t think of dying or giving it up.
“For example, I had chemotherapy. I had side effects like feeling sick or loss of hair, but I never thought of giving it up. I hadn’t ever travelled by aeroplane before, and it was a dream so I thought if I die at 11 years old it is sad as I didn’t do something enjoyable. One of my dreams was going to Disneyland, and we didn’t have one in Hong Kong and I hadn’t ever taken an aeroplane.”
As a child Yu Chui Yee was happy and active
Yee also describes the impact her cancer had on her family. Her mother, she says, felt guilt at the time because she did not know if she had done something wrong or not taken good enough care of her daughter.
Then at the age of 13, following extensive treatment on her leg, Yee’s parents decided to allow her the choice to have it amputated.
“They thought that no matter what it is for me to take the consequences.
“So I did the amputation and I started learning how to walk and come back to the society and school Then my mum helped me to sign up to lots of associations related to disabled people. One was the Hong Kong Paralympic Committee and actually at the very beginning I started with swimming, because I knew swimming before and also my mum wanted me to continue with exercise to keep healthy.”
Having done swimming for two years, Yee was by now a young woman. She describes, accompanied by laughter, why she was attracted to wheelchair fencing.
“I then met a woman who was a wheelchair fencer, who asked if I was interested in it. In that moment I didn’t know about wheelchair fencing and this woman said there are a lot of handsome guys in wheelchair fencing so I went to have a look!
“[…] I started fencing at 16 years old and it was quite sad as I didn’t see the handsome guy in the fencing venue! But I loved wheelchair fencing, first of all because of all the jackets and uniform which is white in colour, and also the helmet and it was looking so cool. Also I think it is physical chess, you have to use your mental strategy and also your physical strength, so compared to swimming wheelchair fencing is more interesting. I can chat with people when I am training, as when I was swimming I cannot talk, whereas fencing I can try to talk to someone to even take some rest!”
What followed was yet another turning point in Yee’s short life. She would start to put in 14 hour days filled with school, training and homework.
Her mum was worried at first that her schoolwork would suffer, and rightly pointed out that doing well academically was important for her daughter’s future.
Neither her nor Yee could foresee the glittering road ahead, but her mum continued to give Yee the space and means to pursue her passion nonetheless.
“I can remember my very first international competition was in 2001, in Italy in Lonato at the World Cup. At that moment I hadn’t got a previous result, so I had to buy my own helmet and jacket etc because it was personal equipment. My mum got six or seven thousand dollars for me to buy that stuff. At that time I didn’t know if I would continue fencing and also my mum didn’t know if I was talented at wheelchair fencing.
“But I can say now that it was one of my mum’s best investments in her life, as without the money she gave me I doubt that I would have continued to fence.”
Making history at Athens 2004
A few years into her developing career, Yee had become a top ranked international fencer and was selected to the national team for the Athens 2004 Paralympics.
At the age of 20, it could have been completely overwhelming. Not for Yee who had other more important matters on her mind.
“Before going my goal was to take the gold in Athens, but the thing I looked most forward too was going to McDonalds, and going to counter and it would be free!
“I also remember we were given like an Oyster Card [as used on the London Underground] so I could get the drinks like Fanta, coke. So, as I was only 20 years old, I was excited for McDonalds and coke every day. I was just so excited to try everything although I know it is not healthy and good for professional athletes!”
Little did Yee know that she was about to become the first wheelchair fencer in the women’s category A to win four golds.
But the first victory of her Paralympic career in the foil proved to be underwhelming for Yee. She faced her teammate Pui Shan Fan for gold.
“Before going to Athens I can remember watching the Olympics at home and chatting with my friend, and there was the men’s hurdles. The winner was the first Chinese man to win a gold in hurdles and I remember my friend asking me “if you ever win a gold in Athens, what are you going to do?” and then I thought about it. But during the final as I was against my teammate, and I always beat her in training, so honestly for me it was quite easy, easier than the semi-finals. That is weird to say that!
Rather the semi-final was far more nerve-wracking.
“I was fencing with [Hungary’s] Zsuzsanna Krajnyak. She was one of the fencers that I most appreciated and was always strong and we have been in so many finals, in major Games, World Cups, World Champs, so that match was harder than the final.
“Also the woman team epee and foil, in the final we also fenced with the Hungarian team, so I got four golds in Athens. I did think about being the Paralympic champion, but in that moment I was happy I just did it. It was a dream come true.”
With the early 2000s being a time when Para sport was still relatively low profile, Yee did not get the recognition at home that a multiple gold-medal-winning Paralympian might expect today.
“There was a celebration at the airport, and after Athens, in 2004 I was still studying in secondary school. When I went back to school, my school mates did a party for me. It was good but it seems so far away now. I was really appreciative, and honestly at that moment, disabled sport was not as popular as now. There were some interviews, but it was not so obvious to the general public.”
Yee was joined on the podium by Zsuzsanna Krajnyak (right) and Pui Shan Fan (left) at Athens 2004
“It doesn’t mean that you work 100 per cent and then you get 100 per cent”
On top of that, as Yee was to discover, she had a lot more to growing to do as an athlete. The years in between Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 proved to be a turbulent time, but one which would also help define her career.
“Before Beijing in 2006, we had the World Champs in Torino. I remember during the semi-final match for the women’s foil cat [category] A…that match I was so…I think the referee was not so good, because I think some of the points should be given to me, and he just gave them to my opponent. After that match, because I lost, I got the bronze medal, but bronze wasn’t my goal.
“I then cried. I cried, and I am a strong person and haven’t, or wouldn’t cry in front of people. During that moment lots of fencers and coaches came to me and tried to comfort me and some said that they did watch the match and thought something can be better. I was just so sad and after that match it was the biggest impact on my fencing career as I started losing confidence.
“As previously in my mind, if you train good and prepare the best you will get the result you deserve to have. But sometimes there are a lot of circumstances that will affect the result. It doesn’t mean that you work 100 per cent and then you get 100 per cent. Sometimes its vice versa. I was losing confidence, I was more emotional. I remember that period, when having training, I will score against my teammate and I just didn’t want to train as I didn’t find it enjoyable. But the Beijing Games were 18 months afterwards, so I had to pick myself up.
“I started talking to my coach about how can I improve as well as some other fencers able-bodied or disabled and tried to find my confidence again. I also consulted psychologists and then they gave me some solutions to make me more positive. During training you have to include all the circumstances. I knew that afterwards, for my prep for Beijing my coach asked my teammates to make me feel angry and to get me used to that situation. I tried to include all the problems and whatever the trigger point was in training to make me stronger.”
Growing as an athlete
Yee managed to recover from the knock to her confidence enough to win another gold at Beijing 2008. But not before she had failed, in her mind, to retain her epee gold.
However this time she had the resilience to come back and less than 24 hours later, reclaimed her foil title.
“I was in the [epee] final and fencing against a Chinese fencer and lost 13-15 and after the match, I got the silver. I was supposed to be happy but was so sad. So, if you see the podium, gold and bronze were so happy. But the silver is weird because they lost, but bronze beat the fourth place. I got back to my room and put the medal in my luggage, and I did not want to see it.
“The next day, we had the foil woman competition, and before the Games I wasn’t doing so good in foil, so I was quite nervous, quite worried about it. During the competition there was a match where I just told myself to come on and just do it, so I got to the final again, and I came up against the same opponent again. Most of the time she was leading me, and then finally I levelled the score 13-13 and got two more points and won 15-13 however I won gold this time. We have some Kung Fu fiction in our culture, so when they tried to describe all those masters, they can see their opponents’ movement in slow motion. During that final that is how I felt, I had that feeling.
“That match is so important in my career because I was at the bottom yesterday after winning silver, and then the next day I win gold. If you ask me how I made that change, I don’t know. It was a good lesson to help me develop my fencing career until now.”
Yee went on to add a further two golds to her collection at London 2012 – including regaining her epee title from Athens 2004. Rio 2016 delivered silver in both events.
Yee’s mother is her biggest fan and travelled to London 2012 to watch her daughter compete
So what is next for the seven-time Paralympic gold medallist, one of her country’s most decorated athletes?
Perhaps surprisingly the Coronavirus pandemic, and the postponement of Tokyo 2020, has changed Yee’s perspective.
“I have thought about retirement. Well actually we were supposed to have the Asian Para Games in 2022, which is one of the most important games for Hong Kong and Asia. So I thought about retiring after that, but now may change my mind, as actually we have some new coaches coming into our team, and they gave me a different point of view of my career.
“I am actually quite happy because if we really had Tokyo 2020 this year I don’t know how I could prepare for it as the country is locked down. At the beginning I didn’t worry about anything, as I can’t train but the whole world can’t train either, but I have nothing to worry about as everyone is the same. But the postponement is good, as previously we [IWAS Wheelchair Fencing] were supposed to cancel some competition which I think is sad. As we had to postpone for one year, we will bring back the Championships and the Americas World Cup which is happy news [for all athletes]. I think I will be the best next year with more time.
“I just want to tell everyone something like: if we look back to when I was 11-years-old it was something you can’t change, like a virus or postponement and something you can’t control. Try not to control it, just let it be, and try to find the best way for yourself to survive in that circumstance.”
And as for her mother, who has invested so much emotionally and financially into Yee’s life and career?
“I think she is definitely proud of me. I remember at London 2012 I invited mum and dad to watch my competition. When we got the medals we got a bunch of flowers, and I would throw the flowers to my mum on the balcony. On the last day and I said “can I give the flowers to one of my friends?” she said “no, no, no, you have to give them to me”.
“When we went back to Hong Kong, she took the flowers to the underground to meet her friends and I think one of the ladies said “her daughter just won a gold medal” and everyone on the underground just started clapping.
“I heard this and just feel so proud, and I think that’s why my mum does not want me to give flowers to other people. My mum is a person whose emotion is so inside, as Chinese tradition, so won’t say ‘I love you’, but whenever I have news on the TV or her friends say I saw your daughter, I can feel how proud she is. I think it’s good as 20 years ago. When I was in the hospital and she was so worried about that, I don’t think she would have thought how I could achieve so many things, and hope to live an ordinary life.
“If I can take care of myself, I don’t need her to take care of me. If I were her, I would feel proud too.”
IWAS Wheelchair Fencing is celebrating 65 years of wheelchair fencing by sharing the stories of the some of the sport’s most prolific athletes and its history.
In 1955 wheelchair fencing made its competitive debut at the International Stoke Mandeville Games in Great Britain. It would go on to feature at the first Paralympic Games at Rome 1960.