Banshee screams, frenetic fencing: Bebe who’s a force of nature

Italy's Bebe Vio attends a press conference at the main press centre ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo on August 22, 2021. — AFP pic
Italy's Bebe Vio attends a press conference at the main press centre ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo on August 22, 2021. — AFP pic

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TOKYO, Aug 28 — 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, 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.

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. 

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 no 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 but was a torch-bearer there, representing future Paralympians. 

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. 

“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.” — AFP

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