Overcoming setbacks: Chiwai Lai | Liv

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A four-time winner of the Asian Rock Climbing Championships, Chiwai Lai had his promising athletic career cut short after he lost the use of his lower body in a car accident. But despite his physical limitations, he never gave up, and became the first paraplegic to scale the face of Lion Rock.

Q How did you first get into rock climbing?

My secondary school installed a climbing wall and that’s where I got my first taste of climbing. I found it easy compared to my classmates and was hooked straight away.

Q What do you love about it?

The first time I tried sports climbing, I relished the physical and mental challenge. I started training and pushing myself, and within a year, I’d won the Asian Youth Championships. I love the adventure and exploration that climbing allows you.

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Q How did your injury happen?

In December 2011, I had a car accident that rendered me paraplegic. When I woke up, I’d lost all feeling in my lower body. I felt hopeless and helpless because I couldn’t climb or compete as an athlete anymore.  I hit an all-time low and I couldn’t believe that overnight I’d lost everything I was most proud of.

Q What was your journey to recovery? How did you mentally stay strong? 

I started off by using elastic bands to regain strength in my upper body myself while still in my hospital bed. I noticed that this started to have a positive influence on other patients, as they would see me improve every day. The patient adjacent to me was pessimistic and neglected all his rehabilitation exercises, but after seeing the improvements I was making, he got a new lease of life and started to exercise too. But I always had to think about what I could do, and not what I couldn’t.

Q What has been the hardest part of this journey and what made you start climbing again?

The hardest part was accepting that I actually had a disability. People looked at me and treated me differently, and I was struggling with the the inconveniences of daily life. For the first six months after the accident, I couldn’t even look at people because I’d lost my confidence and was afraid of what people were saying about me. But after I got over the initial shock and I started to recover, I knew I was still the same person. Five years after the accident, I climbed to the top of Lion Rock with the help of 40 volunteers. It proved to me that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.

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Q Do you have a mantra that you life your life by?

“Be water” by Bruce Lee. To me this means being flexible and adaptable so you can face anything life throws at you. 

Q What’s next for you? What are your goals in life?

I was honoured to be nominated for Best Sporting Moment Award at the Laureus Sports Awards in December, I would love to win and be formally recognised for my physical achievements. I also want to climb one of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, or one of the tallest mountains in the world.

Follow Chiwai’s climbing adventures at @Chi Wai Lai and Instagram @Chiwaicia

(Photos by Ringo Tang)

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