Beatrice Vio enters the fencing arena gracefully and graciously, uttering quiet words of good luck to her competitors. But within minutes she is transformed into an unflinching force of nature.
The effervescent 24-year-old Paralympian, popularly known as Bebe, becomes almost possessed once she removes all four of her prosthetic limbs, attaches a foil to her amputated left arm and is strapped into her wheelchair on the fencing piste.
“When I fight, I have to take off my prostheses and I can’t hold on to the wheelchair,” said Vio. “For this reason I have to train my abdominals in a particular way to keep myself in balance and move quickly.”
And move quickly she does. A few moments later the Foil Category B bout is all over in a blur of movement. Vio sways like a balletic cobra before lunging to strike at lightning speed accompanied by her banshee cries as she registers an opening 5-0 win. Seven hours and eight more victories later at Tokyo’s Makuhari Messe Hall on Saturday, with her decibel levels rising each time and her joy becoming infectious, the Italian sensation secures a second Paralympics Games gold medal to go with her Rio triumph five years ago.
Vio’s celebrations during her 15-9 victory over China’s Zhou Jingjing, in a repeat of the Rio final, are mesmerising – an explosion of frenzied emotion that is part bouncing with a child-like squeal, and part primal scream.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening and so I started, like I was crying and screaming and, gosh, I think tonight I’m gonna start screaming again,” she said.
‘You can’t be afraid’
Her passion extends beyond the arena, where she wants to inspire young people through her sheer exuberance for life – depicted so beautifully in the acclaimed documentary Rising Phoenix as one of nine featured Paralympians.
Her silhouette – steel legs, arm seamlessly tapering into a sword, steel mesh mask – is that of a superhero.
But she is much more: a motivational speaker, an author, an actor, a television host, a campaigner for people with impairments and a promoter of disability sport.
“A strong advocate for a positive body image, Vio had both her legs amputated from the knee and her arms from the forearm in 2008 at the age of 11 after contracting severe meningitis. She uses special prosthetics to hold her weapon and maintain her position in her fencing wheelchair.”— via Paralympic.org
Vio fell in love with fencing as a five-year-old but six years later was diagnosed with rare fulminant meningitis, and to save her life it was necessary to amputate her legs and forearms to stave off creeping necrosis. The rampant, rapidly advancing bacterial infection turned the life of a carefree, energetic, talented child upside-down in just three days.
But she counts herself lucky – just four percent of those afflicted by that strain of meningitis survive. Once her arms were amputated, she and her family thought the worst was over but it wasn’t. Then her legs had to be amputated too. When her parents were scared, Vio took the decision for them. If there is a chance that she will live, she said the amputations were fine. She recalled those days as a fencing match with her own body.
Vio was in hospital for three-and-a-half months enduring multiple surgeries, skin grafts and immense pain. She spent a year learning to walk again using prostheses and build her strength.
She quickly adapted to wheelchair competition and despite being the only wheelchair fencer in the world to compete with no arms and legs, she has risen to the peak of her sport.
“I realised that I was enjoying wheelchair fencing much more than standing fencing,” she said.
“In standing fencing if you are afraid you can escape. While sitting you cannot escape. You can’t be afraid.”
Vio did not compete at the London 2012 Games because it felt she was too young then but was a torch-bearer there, representing future Paralympians. As part of her time in London, she was even a reporter. And then her journey took off.
Vio claimed the world championship for the first time in 2015 and went the whole season unbeaten.
Aged just 19, Vio stunned firm favourite Zhou to win gold at her first Paralympics in Rio and won a Laureus World Sports Award in 2017. And in Tokyo, she went and did it again.
“You know, you have to believe in yourself,” she said, clutching her precious gold medal to her chest. “That’s my message to everyone. Believe and you can do great things.”
The globally-acclaimed Netflix documentary ‘Rising Phoenix’ on Vio (it’s a nickname given to her, she says) and a group of inspiring Paralympians has some lovely moments featuring the Italian. Not just it tells you more about her and background but because it also tells you so much about the power of belief.
As she says...
“When I went back to fencing, I said, ‘Okay guys, I am Bebe... I am without the arms and the legs, I wanna do fencing.’ It’s impossible. You know, you do fencing with these fingers (points to her left arm prosthetic) and then the wrist, that’s the part that you need, that’s fencing. And you don’t have that part, you can’t do fencing. It was impossible, but everything is impossible at the beginning. You just need to believe in yourself. And just go ahead, do whatever you want.”— Rising Phoenix
(With AFP inputs)