Fearless Yu breaking down barriers

By SUN XIAOCHEN | (China Daily)| Updated : 2022-03-11

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Sole female player in Beijing 2022 para ice hockey tourney hopes kids with disabilities are inspired by her example

As the only woman competing in para ice hockey at Beijing 2022, China's Yu Jing is proud to break the mold.

Fiercely powering her sledge as she chased after the puck, Yu stole the show in Team China's 6-0 round-robin win over Italy on Tuesday.

Her sheer presence on the ice made a statement that girls with disabilities can compete in the highly physical sport and should not be afraid to defy expectations and push boundaries.

Yu played over five minutes in the game which fittingly took place on International Women's Day, writing some history as only the third woman in the world to ever compete in the Paralympic hockey program, following the appearances of Norwegians Brit Mjaasund Oeyen and Lena Schroeder in 1994 and 2018 respectively.

Yu expects to see more of her gender follow suit sooner rather than later.

"I hope that women out there will see my debut and believe that there is a chance for them to be on the same stage," the 38-year-old said after the game at the National Indoor Stadium.

"Women with disabilities all over the world, I hope they know it's not impossible, and I hope they see this as encouragement."

Para ice hockey is a mixed-gender sport, but world championships and Paralympic tournaments still tend to feature all-male rosters due to the sport's physically demanding nature.

Yu has had a passion for sports since she was a kid-even with polio causing a disability in her left leg when she was little.

Never compromising her determination to live an active life, she has enjoyed success in a number of summer para sports, including sitting volleyball, wheelchair fencing, and wheelchair basketball.

In 2019, Yu took up para ice hockey when a friend introduced her to the sport following a national wheelchair basketball tournament, and the prospect of representing her country at the home Paralympic Winter Games instantly appealed to her.

Similar to wheelchair basketball, para ice hockey involves players with various lower body disabilities sitting on sledges while pushing themselves along the ice with hockey sticks in both hands. It takes years of training to maintain balance on the sledge while absorbing fierce body checks.

Yu's first experience trying to push her sledge forward two years ago didn't exactly go as smoothly as she'd hoped. However, nothing deters the sports fanatic, who has been conditioned to stay resilient through years of para sports participation.

"It was hard at the beginning. It's quite difficult to maintain balance sitting on literally thin blades and having to control the puck, not to mention taking fierce body checks," Yu said.

Injuries complicated Yu's transition to the sport. She developed a serious tendon sheath cyst on her right wrist because she was pushing too hard.

Icing her wrist has become a daily routine, not to mention frequent treatment for bruises and wounds on her shoulders and back.

"A cyst can grow really big so you can barely move your wrist. You have to pop it and then rest for a few days until the fluid is absorbed and then resume training," Yu said.

In 2021, Yu was called up by the Chinese Paralympic ice hockey team, becoming the only female on the team and the oldest member. She made her international debut at the 2021 world championships B-pool in Ostersund, Sweden.

"The youngest players are about half my age. It's fair for them to call me 'Aunt Jing'," she said with a smile.

Her young brothers, however, never take it easy on Yu in training.

"Once you put on the uniform, there is no difference between us. You can only see the jersey colors and the position the person is playing. It's inevitable to have crashes in this sport. I am braced for whatever challenges are thrown at me on the ice," she said.

With all eyes on a blockbuster semifinal between Team China and three-time defending champion the United States on Friday night, Yu hopes that her team can spring another surprise at the Paralympics-not just because a medal would be within reach but also because of how it would inspire others to follow her lead.

"As long as you have interest, you should be able to find a relevant organization or club to get started in para sports," said the Shandong native. "Just try, like I did when I went to ask if they were keen to take on a female player. Have the courage to start, and you'll have a chance like me to stand on this stage."