A Paralympic volunteering trip fuelled by friendship

10 October 2016
Rio de Janeiro (BRA)
Cheng and Elisabetta met in Italy, but continued their friendship around the world.

Cheng Yihong, the only Chinese volunteer based full-time at the Sambodromo during the Paralympic Games, travelled around the world to be at Rio 2016.

The lengthy journey was the result of a decade-long friendship with Italian para archer Elisabetta Mijno.

“Ninety-nine percent of why I do this, it is for her,” Cheng said. “It’s my pleasure to be here and to be able to see her shoot.”

In 2007, Mijno was beginning to establish herself as an international archer. The Bejing 2008 Paralympic Games were around the corner and she wanted to learn more about Chinese culture.

She struck up a relationship with Cheng, who then lived with Mijno’s family for a year, as part of a school exchange programme in Turin.

“They welcomed me into their family,” Cheng said. “I call Elisabetta ‘sister’, I call her mum ‘mum’, I call her dad ‘dad’. We have a great relationship.”

The duo enjoyed getting to know each other better and sharing their respective customs. Mijno would play tour guide around Turin and Cheng would talk about Chinese culture.

“My favourite moments were when we would drive around in her car,” Cheng said. “Her license plate had the same numbers as my birthday [24 August 1990]. In China, we say that’s fate. The story was written in the stars.”

Cheng had never known anyone with an impairment before meeting Mijno and had never watched any archery.

“I learned more than I ever thought I would,” Cheng said. “And I keep learning, every day, every year.”

Cheng travelled to watch Mijno at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, where Mijno lost in the second round, and then again at the London 2012 Games. In London, Mijno took the silver medal in the W2 category where she lost to Iran’s Zahra Nemati in the gold medal match.

Cheng decided to volunteer during the Rio Paralympics, an opportunity that she found very rewarding. She worked with the teams, marshalling the athletes, and also helped out as a translator.

“It is beautiful having her here for support, it’s a beautiful friendship,” Mijno said. “The volunteers are very important to this organisation and they are so helpful and friendly.”

Mijno won the bronze medal in the recurve open mixed team event in Rio, and lost to Nemati in the first round of the recurve women’s open competition.

“It felt like the gold medal match,” Mijno said. “I hope to meet her again in Beijing or Tokyo.”

And Cheng will be there to support her, as she hopes to volunteer again.

“I’m really proud of her,” Cheng said. “I’m so happy that I can be here and share in this.”

The para archery competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games ran 10-17 September in the Sambodromo.