Teen with Down syndrome finds confidence through gymnastics
Updated 18:27, 01-Feb-2019
Xu Mengqi
02:47

"You took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it to something resembling lemonade."

Well, this quote from Dr Katowsky in season one of This is Us (if you haven't watched this heart-wrenching drama on family life, I strongly recommend you do), is what encapsulated my feeling towards the family of Li Xiang, a 15-year-old with Down syndrome who became a gymnastics champion at the 2015 Special Olympics Summer Games.

Li Xiang practicing pommel horse. / CGTN Photo

Li Xiang practicing pommel horse. / CGTN Photo

When I first met Li, a little over a week ago, he was training at his school in Shanghai for the upcoming Special Olympics Summer Games in Abu Dhabi and I was curious what kind of a character he was. 

I also fretted a bit about the conversation we were going to have as I did not know whether he would understand my questions. 

But he did. His intelligence quotient, or IQ, may equal that of a six-year-old, but his sensitivity and consideration towards people around him lead you to think he is smarter than that. And he's actually quite fun to be with.

Li Xiang warming up for gymnastics practice. /CGTN Photo

Li Xiang warming up for gymnastics practice. /CGTN Photo

"A few years back, people who knew him would say he kind of kept things to himself and he was an introvert. He would perhaps even avoid any eye contact with people," Yang Jianying, Li Xiang's mom, told me.

Yang said a change in Li Xiang's character occurred when he started training for the Special Olympics at the end of 2013. "After playing sports I find him more and more confident now and also a lot braver," she added.

It takes patience to teach kids with Down syndrome because they might not understand instructions very well. But they can still surprise you with their determination and perseverance once they are really focused on their goals. 

Li Xiang and his friends show the calluses on their hands. /CGTN photo

Li Xiang and his friends show the calluses on their hands. /CGTN photo

And for Li Xiang, one goal is to win another championship at the Special Olympics World Games.

Often we cannot help but feel sympathy toward people with intellectual disabilities and their families. And having a Down syndrome baby at the age of 26 was indeed devastating for Yang Jianying as it might be to any young mom. But being around Li Xiang's family for a whole day, I was overwhelmed by a swathe of positive energy that made me want to admire rather than feel sorry for them.

Li Xiang with his family. /CGTN Photo

Li Xiang with his family. /CGTN Photo

On a final note, I asked Yang Jianying what kind of life she wants Li Xiang to have. She said that due to physical complications, Down syndrome babies are believed to have a shorter life span, but she hopes that the different sort of life that Li Xiang lives can be really beneficial for him.

I think that with his confidence and determination, Li Xiang has already found success all of his own.

(Cover: Li Xiang with his medals and awards. / CGTN Photo)