I AM NUMBER ONE: Yang Bozun celebrates victory after winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter medley SM11 at the London Paralympic Games on September 8, 2012 (WU WEI)
Navigating the water was the least of Xu's worries. "For disabled people, it was very painful to show their incomplete limbs to others. You can imagine when I appeared at the swimming pool, I was afraid others would give me strange looks."
Fortunately, Xu's efforts paid off. In 2006, he attended the Fourth Disabled People's Sports Meeting of Henan Province and won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal. His self-confidence skyrocketed.
Later at the National Disabled Swimming Championship in 2004, he won a gold and a silver medal and was selected to join THE National Disabled Swimming Team. Several months later at the Athens Paralympic Games, then 12-year-old Xu became the youngest swimmer in the Chinese team.
"My coach told me the reason he sent me to the Paralympic Games was to broaden my horizons," said Xu.
Although he finished ninth in the Athens competition, the experience boosted his courage. Four years later at the Beijing Olympic Games, he won a gold and a bronze and broke a world record.
Xu says his motto comes from Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
"We have no secret. The key to our success is hard training," said swimmer Pan Shiyun. "Now the country and society are increasingly concerned about disabled people. We now have more platforms and opportunities of self-realization. All the disabled people have ideals. We aspire to display our ability and prove our value at such rare opportunity as the Paralympic Games."
Swimmer Yang Bozun, a three-time gold medalist, has an idea where strength comes from.
"Our coach often tells us that strength comes from the heart," said Yang.
"We have a strong team of coaches and a sound selection mechanism for swimmers," said swimming coach Zhang Honghu.
"With the advancement of national competitiveness, the country has directed more resources to sports for the disabled in terms of both technology and equipment and the cultivation of coaches and athletes," said Zhang.
As a country with 85 million disabled people—roughly the population of Germany—China has always attached great importance to the Paralympics.
The Paralympic spirit means disabled athletes should challenge themselves, pursue the value of life and foster a sense of dignity, confidence and self-reliance, according to a commentary in the Guangming Daily.
The main reason for China's continuous great achievements at the Paralympic Games is the support of the government and the people, said Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee. China attaches great importance to sports for disabled athletes by investing heavily in necessary facilities and human resources, said Craven, adding that the country's success could be a model for other nations and regions around the world in what it means to care for the disabled.
"I won China's first Paralympic gold medal one month before Xu Haifeng won China's first Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984," said Ping Yali, a blind athlete who was born in Beijing in 1961.
China participated in the Paralympics for the first time in 1984, 24 years after the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome. Around 1,800 athletes from 45 countries and regions vied for 900 medals.
The Chinese delegation consisted of a mere 24 athletes who participated in track and field events, swimming competitions and table tennis. The team finished 23rd on the medal tally with two gold, 13 silver and nine bronze medals.
"When I first participated in the Paralympics, I knew nothing about the rules and learned how to behave from an interpreter right before the competition," Ping recalled.
A breakthrough was made in the 2004 Athens Paralympics when China led the medal tally with 141 medals, 63 of which were gold. It was the first time that Team China won more than 100 medals in a single Paralympics.
Reminiscing of the first time she participated in the Paralympics, Ping's voice was riddled with excitement. "Years ago, China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF) sought for blind people to take part in the track and field competitions in the Paralympics, I signed up without any hesitation and was recommended by the federation to train with the national team.
When she left for the Paralympics the first time, leaders of CDPF encouraged her by saying, "If you perform well in the Paralympics, the willingness among Chinese disabled people to do sports would greatly increase.
The Chinese Paralympics delegation has leapt from 23rd place in 1984 to the top of the rankings because of the Chinese Government's investments in sports development for the disabled.
The China Disability Sports Training Center built right before the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games consists of nearly 20 sporting venues and is the world's largest training center for disabled people.