Yangzi takes off, the metal blade pushing off the track. Next to him is his friend and training buddy – a cross-country runner. Beads of sweat drip down his brow, heart racing beneath his heavy breathing. Still, Yangzi won’t stop.
Five years ago, in the summer of 2009, while Yangzi was still living in China, he began to feel a sharp pain on the side of his right leg. Yangzi didn’t think much of it. But, a month later, the pain only have got worse, forcing Yangzi to be in a wheelchair. Yangzi’s parents worriedly took him into the doctor; after multiple x-rays and a biopsy, Yangzi was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.
Bone cancer in the leg.
Doctors explained Yangzi had two options: only removing part of the bone, or amputating the leg just below the knee. But, due to the severity of his condition, a number of doctors suggested amputation would be the best hope for survival.
Yangzi had a single hope – the possibility of living a normal life.
The family yielded to the doctors’ recommendations, giving Yangzi time to do his own research about the long-term effects amputation could have on his life.
“It was a down time,” Yangzi said. “I was pretty sad for half a year or so.”
But what he discovered would almost immediately give him an overwhelming sense of hope. “I saw people running in the Olympics with their blade on and people playing football with their running blade,” Yangzi said. “That really inspired me.” It was then that Yangzi was determined to seek his condition as an advantage.
In the meantime, he would spend six months in chemotherapy, and his parents would have to make a very important decision in attempt to find the best treatment. Subsequently, Yangzi and his parents would arrive in the US – a decision Yangzi considered “a sacrifice.”
“My parents were always positive and supportive,” Yangzi said. “They never showed they were afraid, if they were afraid – they encouraged me.”
Looking for treatment
In 2010, Yangzi and his parents arrived at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where they accepted the doctor’s decision to amputate his leg.
At 14 years old, Yangzi was fitted for his first prosthetic leg. After another six months of physical therapy, he was able to stand again.
“I always believed I would be able to walk,” Yangzi said. “It felt strange at first because I wasn’t actually walking, it was more like floating on air.”
If he had been able to walk again, Yangzi knew he would be able to run again, too.
The idea for a running blade began in high school, with Yangzi wanting to play football, and a coach and teammates who half-heartedly took pleasure in his presence on the field.
“I wasn’t that good because my speed was so limited by my prosthetic,” Yangzi said. “I pushed myself to do my best.” Consequently, Yangzi endured many bruises and cuts on his leg.
“The physical pain was there, but I tried to do as much as I could. I was frustrated because of that,” Yangzi said.
Though frustrated and in a lot of pain, Yangzi said he always wanted to do his hardest, even if it meant having to hide any kind of bruising from his coach and teammates.
He even tried to play soccer. But because of his prosthetic, Yangzi couldn’t even enter the high school’s gym.
His final attempt would lead him into the high school’s wrestling team, where he learned that he could compete without his prosthetic.
In the beginning, Yangzi said he was often asked by his teammates why part of his right leg was missing. He was also more than willing to tell them. “After a couple of weeks they didn’t mind anymore,” Yangzi said. “They didn’t see me as having an amputation.”
Belonging – that was what Yangzi craved. Although his life was different from others his age, Yangzi wanted to show people that he was really no different.
“There’s still definitely physical amputation there, it’s a part of me,” Yangzi said. “This cancer is only a part of me, but, I’m still like everyone else.”
A wish of a lifetime
When Yangzi discovered Make-A-Wish in the spring of 2013, he had a single wish in mind – something that would push him off the ground, something that would break him free from the slow, steady, pace life had handed to him, something that would support his urge to run …
For three years, Yangzi had wished he could get a running blade. “It cost too much for my family to afford,” he said.
Yangzi waited. Six months later, he got the call. “When Make-A-Wish told me they could do this for me, it felt really awesome,” Yangzi remembered. Immediately, he began looking up different designs and local manufacturers, growing more excited each day.
Yangzi came across Cocco Enterprises, a local company that works with prosthetics and orthotics.
When he walked in, it was everything he had ever imagined.
Matt, a prosthetist at Cocco Enterprises and a prosthetic runner himself, said that when he first met Yangzi “there was a high level of excitement.”
Matt lost his leg in a lawn mower accident when he was 4 years old. Upon hearing about Yangzi’s wish, he was eager to take part in the prosthetic process leading up to the moment Yangzi was ready to try on the running leg.
“Of all the things he could have wanted this was his wish, and I was just as excited as he was,” Matt said.
Whatever unease Yangzi had felt after cancer disrupted his teenage years was no longer a concern. Learning to run on his new prosthetic leg and running blade was the easiest thing he ever had to do.
“He did a little jog in the hallway and it was instant,” Matt said. “He was just up and running.”
Yangzi’s life now
Yangzi is currently training for the upcoming track season. He has a recent accomplishment he likes to share. Two weeks ago, he ran 5 kilometers for the first time with his friend. “I was really excited and I do it nonstop with my running blade now,” Yangzi said. “There is so much anxiety for me to be active and running.”
He believes he’s almost catching up to his friend.
“Make-A-Wish helped me accomplish my dream,” Yangzi said. “It also helped me with my overall success and confidence – I’m not afraid of doing sports anymore.”
There is no pain, no sound, only gravity, Yangzi said.
All photos: JPG Photography