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Once upon a time, there was a girl who wielded a sword. Her name was Beatrice Vio or “Bebe” for short. When Bebe was just 11 years old, she came down with a severe case of meningitis. She survived a quadruple amputation, forcing her to relearn almost everything. But Bebe wanted more than just to walk or brush her teeth—Bebe wanted to fence again. And beyond that, Bebe wanted to win. Using prostheses of her own invention, Bebe fenced all the way to the paralympic games.
Marcy Vaj is a violinist/violist, composer, and teacher. She has co-produced and orchestrated several albums and written countless arrangements. Marcy is a founding and touring member of The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and was Sir Paul McCartney’s concertmaster for the 2012 Grammys. She is an adjunct professor of violin/viola at Santa Monica College and also teaches privately.
Once upon a time, there lived a girl from Italy named Bebe who loved to sword fight.
One day, when Bebe was just five years old, she was supposed to be at a volleyball lesson, but she snuck out of the gym. Her coach didn’t know where she was. Neither did her parents.
<<cue the sound of épées clanging together>>
Bebe slipped into the building next door where she stood, mesmerized by children dressed in white, sparring with a special kind of sword called an épée.
What is this? thought Bebe.
“Do you want to give it a try?” asked the instructor.
Bebe was handed a mesh mask to put over her face and an épée of her own. She immediately felt a jolt of excitement run from the tip of her blade all the way up through her body. By the time her parents found her, Bebe had fallen in love with the art of fencing.
I’m MARCY VAJ. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the women who inspire us.
This week: Bebe Vio
<END THEME MUSIC>
Bebe was a dynamo at fencing. Her thighs burned when her coaches made her hold the en garde position. As the seconds clicked away, she felt her racing heartbeat, kicking for her whole body to be let free.
Just when she thought she couldn’t wait any longer, her coach shouted, “Allez!”
Bebe’s feet began to move as if they had a mind of their own. They shuffled forward and backward, advancing and retreating, as if she were dancing with her opponent. Adrenaline rushed through her veins as a flush crept up her face. No one would see the redness or sweaty brow behind her mask. She’d never felt so invincible, or free!
Sometimes, she wouldn’t be fast enough, and she’d feel the point of her opponent’s sword on her chest. It was aggravating, but she shook it off. Time to reset. Try again. But soon enough, the clanging of metal recommenced.
Bebe knew that she had fast footwork and a strong upper body. The épée felt natural in her hand, her upper thigh contracted just right when she lunged forward, catching her opponent off balance.
The strategy of the sport was a different monster entirely. After each bout, her coach would tell her where she’d made mistakes and how to avoid them the next time. Bebe would get annoyed with herself, but the coach assured her she would learn this all in time.
After all, she was a natural.
TRAGEDY & ILLNESS
One morning, when she was 11, Bebe woke up feeling terribly sick. Her mother measured her temperature: she had a high fever. At first, they thought it was the flu. But when three days later her parents brought her into the hospital, the doctor gave them a much worse diagnosis. Bebe didn’t have the flu, she had a severe, and possibly deadly, meningitis.
“Meningitis causes the swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and the spinal cord,” the doctor explained, “and this swelling can cause permanent damage to your entire body.”
<CUE BEEPS OF HOSPITAL MACHINES>
Bebe and her family were stunned. Just two years before, a neighbor had come down with the infection, but the doctors had told Bebe she did not need the vaccine. There was no risk of her contracting it, they assured her mother.
But now, the meningitis bacteria had spread so quickly and viciously that parts of Bebe’s body were dying. Even the doctors looked scared as they came in and out of her room. They would have to amputate Bebe’s arms from the elbow down and her legs from the knee down to guarantee her survival.
She spent over three months in the hospital and underwent many surgeries on her arms, legs, and face. Each time she woke up, there was less of her body left in the bed.
While in the hospital, Bebe had to go through intense rehabilitation. First, she had to adjust to the shock of not having arms or legs anymore. She felt so small and helpless in that hospital bed, wondering how she could put her life back together again. But with her team, and her indomitable will, she did just that—focusing not on what she had lost, but on what remained.
Once her upper arms and thighs started healing, Bebe got fitted for prosthetics. But finding the right fit was a painful and difficult process—the doctors had to create a liner to fit over her residual limbs and then connect that to a socket. Then they picked the most natural looking arms and legs for Bebe so they would look and feel like they belonged on her body. And then Bebe had to figure out how to use them.
Bebe had to relearn all the simple tasks she once took for granted—like brushing her teeth and holding a spoon. Even walking down the hall felt like she was trying to balance her torso on rickety stilts.
Bebe was only eleven years old and all she wanted was to run, leap, and play. Everything seemed incredibly slow and frustrating.
Most of all, Bebe wanted to fence again.
<<CUE someone shouting “En-garde, pret, allez!>>
LEAVING THE HOSPITAL
Once she was released from the hospital, Bebe returned to school right away. As she rolled through the hallways, students and staff stared at her uncomfortably. She soon recognized that she would never again blend in with the crowd.
So, Bebe spoke out. In fact, she found new power in her voice. She told everyone exactly what had happened to her and offered them a chance to try on her new arms and legs. If they dared.
“If we were all the same, it would be boring,” she declared.
And Bebe was anything but boring. Just one year after her amputations, she told her parents that she had to start fencing again. She knew she had it in her. There was no greater feeling than wielding a sword.
Bebe’s parents promised to support her, though they knew it would be an uphill battle. Bebe’s doctors were not as encouraging though. After all that she’d been through, how could she put her body through such rigorous workouts and training? Besides, how could she pursue this sport without arms or legs? It had never been done before.
But Bebe refused to take no for an answer. She decided that if she didn’t have all the body parts needed to be a traditional fencer, then she would just invent a new set of limbs.
Bebe tried sticking her blade onto her prosthetic arm with sticky tape, but that didn’t work. She needed a prosthetic arm specifically designed for fencing, one that could grip the sword and give her full control of its movements using her upper arm strength and elbow. And so, her father took her to a special prostheses center called Arte Ortopedica to see what they could create together.
<<sound cue of making prosthetics>>
Bebe and her father worked to make a fencing arm that could give her control and flexibility. No one had ever asked for a prosthetic arm that could do all the things Bebe wanted hers to do, so it took a lot of work to get the precise measurements, sculpt the pieces, and sand them down, fitting and refitting them to her body. It was as if Bebe was a set of Legos being assembled.
Though Bebe could now stand and walk on her prosthetic legs, she had to fence from her wheelchair. She had been inspired by the wheelchair fencing champions she had seen competing in the Paralympic Games. On her television at home, she watched these powerful fencers in awe, using the sheer force of their upper bodies.
One day, thought Bebe, I’m going to be one of them.
Getting back into the game was not an easy task by any means; it was a long and agonizing process. She had once felt so free and fierce; Bebe now felt small and disconnected. She trained for hours upon hours, reconditioning her muscles. She needed her mind and her new body to work together seamlessly as they had before her diagnosis.
Soon, she realized, she could not use the same techniques as before. She was working with a different set of tools now, and she had to develop new strategies to go along with them. In wheelchair fencing, Bebe found that there was no way to retreat from an opponent. She had to lean in and attack!
And attack she did.
Bebe spent the next year strengthening her core and drilling her upper body intensely. She learned how to fence from her elbow so her special prosthetic arm could be its most precise and powerful.
Meanwhile, she tried to keep up with her schoolwork, social life, and fencing practice. Sometimes, it overwhelmed her and she would come home from fencing practice, go into her room, and just cry.
She knew she had it in her to be a fencing champion, but it felt like it would take forever to get there.
RETURNING TO COMPETITIONS
Well, maybe not forever.
In 2010, Bebe entered her first official wheelchair fencing competition. It was magical. She felt the spark of excitement that had first lured her into the gym when she was five years old. Even her parents were stunned by how energetic and fearless she was in the arena. The next year, Bebe dueled in her first international competition and she won. After that, she joined the Italian
national Paralympic fencing team and began training for the World Cup. Though her team made it to the final round multiple times, she came in second place more than once. She knew her self-doubt held her back and was determined to defeat that too.
Bebe decided that every time she put on her fencing mask, she would imagine her family and beloved coaches inside that helmet with her, cheering her on and helping her breathe, focus, and dive into the moment. Bebe began traveling all over the globe, competing with the best international fencers. She was diligent, treating both her wins and losses as important learning experiences. Starting in 2014, she brought home the gold after every match.
Bebe began a countdown on her phone exactly 500 days before the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. And each morning, when she woke up, she told herself, “Come on, Bebe, get to work.”
Bebe arrived in Rio along with the Italian Paralympic squad, ready for victory. She was just nineteen years old, but she had already gathered so many fans across the globe that the entire arena roared when she took position. She was dynamic and dazzling, lunging and thrusting easily through the first three rounds of the individual competitions.
And then came the final round.
<<CUE: En garde!>>
Bebe was up against a Chinese opponent, Jingjing Zhou, who had already won the gold in a separate category. And now she and Bebe were facing off. The arena was filled with shouting voices.
“Bebe, Bebe!” the audience chanted.
After each point she scored, she let out a gleeful howl. One, nil. Two, nil, Three, nil, Four. Bebe was close to victory, until Jingjing’s foil accidentally flicked the back of her head, just where the mask left her unprotected.
Bebe crumpled in pain. Jingjing leaned in to make sure her opponent was okay. The referee paused the match so Bebe could get some ice and take some deep breaths before the match resumed.
And then an incredible smile spread across her face again. Bebe was back! Bouncing in her wheelchair, lunging forward, thrusting, parrying, screaming with joy.
<<CUE Bebe shrieks>>
When Bebe scored her final point, she ripped off her mask shrieking and crying, while the fans cheered wildly. She had won.
<<CUE cheers of Bebe! Bebe! into Italian National Anthem >>
As the award ceremony commenced, Bebe kissed and even bit her new gold medal, belting out the Italian national anthem as the Italian flag was raised into the air. Her coach proudly pushed her chair around the stadium.
And then, Bebe hopped out of her chair, and with her prosthetic legs on, she ran around in a huge circle, blowing kisses and love to her devoted fans, her whole body triumphant.
OLYMPICS AND BEYOND
Soon after the win in Rio, the Italian delegation invited Bebe to join them at President Barack Obama’s final state dinner in the White House.
Bebe took one look at the invitation and laughed. She thought she was being pranked. Where were the hidden cameras? But it was real!
During dinner, Bebe approached President Obama’s table and asked him to take a selfie. He was delighted and even offered to hold her phone, both of them grinning from ear to ear.
<<CUE music…into Bebe saying “We should believe in ourselves. I don’t like to see people give up.”>>
Today, Bebe speaks at motivational workshops all around Italy about the importance of vaccinations. She wants to ensure that every child gets vaccinated against meningitis, so they don’t have to go through the pain that she endured.
Bebe’s phone is already counting down the days until the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. She says she has a lot of preparation ahead of her. Being the only fencer in the world who competes without arms or legs presents a challenge. But that’s just the way Bebe likes it.