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Finding hope through hoops
update:April 16,2020
April 16,2020 -- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There could hardly be a more apt phrase for Punco Wangyal, a Yushu earthquake survivor who one year after that disaster was hit by a car and lost the use of his legs.
Not many thought Punco could bounce back from the injury, turn over a new leaf and inspire others in similar positions. But over time, the 31-year-old from Yushu, Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Qinghai province, found his strength and made some lemonade-bitter yet sweet.
"I survived the earthquake, but never had I ever thought that my life would be turned upside down a year later because of a car accident," said Punco.
In March 2011, about a year after the devastating magnitude-7.1 earthquake, Punco was struck by a car that led to a serious spinal cord injury. He would never walk again and was devastated.
But he finally chose to swallow his pain and stop grieving, because he knew deep down giving in and losing hope would only lead to suffering. After an intense internal struggle, Punco decided to fight back, no matter how hard it would be.
And so the battle began, starting with lessons to do the simplest daily tasks. Even though the progress sometimes seemed like baby steps, Punco never gave up, with his determination impressing and inspiring those around him.
With the help of his therapists, he learned from scratch how to dress, get up from his bed and make his way around his home on his own.
New journey 
But while he was struggling with his recovery, Punco knew he would eventually face an even bigger problem-how to resume his former life. Before the accident, he worked as a tour guide, with an immense passion for languages and a dream of exploring every corner of the world.
"I have interests in computer and media. Reading opens up my heart and keeps me away from negativity," he said.
In 2012, he decided to go back to school, enrolling at a vocational institution in Chengdu, in nearby Sichuan province.
Campus life was a stage and Punco became the superstar. To put it in his own words: "The stage is as big as your heart." He was the model student who never missed a class, the lead singer of a band, and the champion of the school's English-speaking contest.
From there, Punco's life really began to blossom again. After graduation, he went to Germany for further studies. Since then, he has never stopped traveling, visiting 10 countries on three continents in the space of two years. He even opened an Indian restaurant in Chengdu after finally settling down.
Punco knows more about physical and mental pain than most. So he resolved be an inspiration for those with similar conditions, especially those afflicted as a result of the earthquake that struck his hometown 10 years ago.
In 2018, Punco founded the Yushu Spinal Cord Injury Organization, which helps those recovering from such injuries to get vocational training in disciplines such as crafts, baking or coffee making.
Perhaps the most inspirational element of the organization is its basketball team, which is helping Punco realize his hoop dreams. "When I was a little boy, I dreamed about playing basketball, kicking footballs freely on my hometown grassland."
For Punco, the sport is not only about physical fitness, it also means companionship, personal triumph over hardships and helping others to do the same.
Punco's teammate Baizhou is a case in point. He lost his ability to walk after a car accident in 2007 and had a hard time coping with his misfortune. But since joining the team, Baizhou has regained hope.
"I was in a lot of pain every single day. But with the help of my teammates, I was finally able to walk out of the darkest moment of my life," Baizhou said.
In November 2019, the team traveled to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet autonomous region, to compete against locals with similar disabilities. "It was more about seeking encouragement and having fun than winning," Punco said.
"I'm six feet tall and I'm only about four and a half feet in my wheelchair. But when I play basketball, my teammates and I become each other's rocks-that's the power of sports."
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