The infection struck Beatrice swiftly and silently – turning her life upside down in just three days. Hers was a rare and particularly deadly strain of meningitis. A young Venetian, Beatrice Vio – “Bebe” to her friends – was just 11 years old when she contracted the disease. She was a pretty, young girl. Athletic, agile, and full of talent. But how well do we really know ourselves? And if life’s path never causes us to stumble or leads us down into the abyss, how can we possibly know what we are truly capable of achieving? Beatrice Vio was five when she took up fencing. The sport soon became her passion. To excel at fencing, you must be able to move quickly, dancing nimbly across the ground.
The sport calls for excellent hand-eye coordination and a measure of grit. A grandmaster of the art once instructed his pupils: “A man who wishes to fence must have the heart of a lion. Young knights, learn to love God. Strive after integrity and take great pains in your knightly practices. Show manly courage against anyone who wrongs you. If you wish to maintain your honour, then you must practise truth. Stand firm as a bear and do not equivocate.” – The infection struck Beatrice without warning. Like a thief in the night. Within a matter of three days, her life was hanging in the balance.
Just four percent of those afflicted by the strain of meningitis that Beatrice contracted survive their illness. According to medical experts, it is strong enough to kill an ox. At the hospital, doctors worked frantically to save Beatrice. She pulled through – but with grave consequences. When she subsequently developed necrosis, doctors were forced to amputate both her legs below the knee and her arms at the elbow. Beatrice remained in hospital for three and a half months. Plastic surgery followed, and more pain. A succession of skin transplants was conducted to seal the wounds on her legs and arms. Somehow she pulled through.
Eventually, Beatrice returned home to her school and her friends. Four limbs lighter. Four. One of the world’s oldest competitive sports, fencing was popular in both Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, it was common to challenge others to a duel with sabres over a perceived insult or some other dispute. The man who refused the challenge of a duel was a man without honour and could expect to be treated as a social outcast. Meningitis challenged Beatrice Vio to a very special kind of duel – one that pitted her against herself.
Over the next year, “Bebe” learned to live with her artificial limbs and retrained her muscles. She learned to walk again, to hold objects and, finally, to hold a dagger. A single-minded sense of purpose. A source of strength with the capacity to take her to victory and beyond. Beatrice began to fence again and soon found herself competing at Paralympic level. Then she won a competition to become an Olympic torchbearer. When Beatrice Vio made her debut on the world stage, the audience fell silent in wonder – wonder not at the spectacle of the opening ceremony or the sporting achievements to follow, but at the sheer tenacity displayed by this young woman from Italy.
In 2012, Beatrice Vio from Mogliano Veneto won gold in foil fencing at the Italian Championship and silver at the World Championships in the under-17 category (coed). But Beatrice wasn’t going to stop there. She qualified for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and came home with gold. In her book, Mi hanno regalato un sogno (I Was Given a Dream), she writes: “Dear World! I am a lucky woman! I am doing just fine with my four pairs of legs, my Robocop hands, and the marks on my scarred face. I would no longer recognise myself without them.”
At the Laureus World Sports Awards in February 2017, Beatrice was named Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability. She attended the gala in a red evening dress complemented by red lipstick and a pixie cut. When her name was announced, she stood and made her way to the stage effortlessly, her eyes glowing as she climbed the five steps to the podium. The audience gave her a standing ovation. Holding her award high, she delivered her acceptance speech to the audience and the world – and all at the age of only 19. She speaks English well. Her smile is warm, her laugh infectious. But she has a reputation as a fierce opponent. Unflinching, she takes on all challengers. Even the most formidable. The demons.
Ms Vio, you founded “art4sport” together with your parents. What is your role in the organisation?
I was the first member and the first testimonial. My parents started “art4sport” shortly after my illness in 2009. There are 21 members today. We support children who undergo amputation and are using sport as therapy. I know from experience how much sport helps.
Do you think that prosthetic users might one day be faster, stronger, more athletic than their peers?
Engineers and scientists are making real progress in the field of prosthetics. This helps people like us, and allows us to get better and better. We will soon find out just how fast and strong we will get.
You were invited to dine at the White House following the Summer Paralympics. Would you mind telling us what you and Barack Obama spoke about?
Unfortunately I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say, however, is that he is an incredibly kind-hearted and friendly person as well as a good listener. I never thought I’d see the day, but I actually managed to get a selfie with him.
What do you plan to do in the future? What are your dreams?
There are a number of projects I’d like to work on and goals I’d like to achieve. What I’m particularly passionate about is increasing awareness of the Paralympics. Most people don’t seem to understand that every Olympic discipline is also included in the Paralympics. I’d like to change that, and I think I could play a significant role in this.