Rural para-athlete turns tragedy into powerlifting glory

Xinhua, September 19, 2023
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Lying on the bench, Ma Zhifu took a deep breath, lowered the weighted barbell to the chest, held it motionless, and then pressed it upwards 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 49 kg category on his Paralympic debut.

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

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."

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 at home for years.

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

Ma in action during the men's 49kg powerlifting event at the Paralympic Games in China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Sept. 9, 2023. (Xinhua/Ma Lijuan)

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

In 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, Ma opened up a brand-new world.

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

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

A gym owner heard about Ma's story and offered him free use of all his equipment. Since the gym is over ten kilometers away, Ma installed a motor on his wheelchair in order to drive all the way to the gym, practicing on a daily basis to stay physically active.

Each and every lift 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, said Guo Qinghong, chief referee of the powerlifting competition. "As the first Paralympic Games in Ningxia, it has set future para-athletes with records to break, goals to strive for and examples to follow," he added.

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