Young Paralympic fencer Bebe Vio learned to compete using her elbow, and would never back down from a challenge.

As early as age five, Beatrice “Bebe” Vio was an instinctive fencer, light on her feet, agile, flexible and fast. With her lighting quick footwork, strong upper body and powerful thighs, Bebe quickly bested most other fencers, and only got better as she grew up.

One morning when she was 11, Bebe woke with a terrible headache and a very high fever. Her mother believed she had the flu, but her illness was much more serious.

A neighbor’s child had come down with meningitis years earlier, but Bebe’s doctor assured her mother that she was too young to contract the virus. She needn’t worry about vaccinating her daughter— or so they thought.

When Bebe’s parents took her to the hospital three days after the onset of her symptoms, they were horrified to learn that she had contracted the virus, which had spread rapidly. Meningitis caused the membranes surrounding Bebe’s brain and spinal cord to swell. If not resolved soon, Bebe could suffer permanent damage.

In fact, Bebe’s diagnosis was a rare type of meningitis, one that only 3 percent of people survived.

The bacteria in Bebe’s body spread so quickly that her limbs became necrotic, literally turning black and dying before the doctors’ eyes. The only hope of saving her life was to amputate all four limbs, preserving only the thighs and upper arms.

That was only the beginning. Bebe endured a succession of skin transplants and plastic surgeries. At times, the pain was nearly unbearable. 

Bebe’s community rallied behind her. Teachers came to her hospital room to teach the lessons she missed, so that she could continue school with the classmates she’d known for years. 

After four months in the hospital, Bebe could finally leave for rehabilitation to learn to move and strengthen her new body and, as her limbs healed, she was fitted for prosthetics. She learned to balance and walk again, and to master seemingly simple tasks such as brushing her teeth or holding a spoon. The dream of returning to fencing and becoming one of the greatest female athletes of her time motivated her to take her recovery seriously.

Soon enough, she held a sword, too.

Bebe had seen wheelchair fencing while watching the Paralympic Games on television. There, the fencers competed using just the strength of their upper bodies while seated in their chairs. Bebe dedicated herself to becoming one of them, ignoring the fact that no fencer had ever competed in the Paralympics without arms.

Preparing herself was a long and painful process full of tears and frustration, but Bebe never gave up.

She strengthened her core, learned to fence from her elbow and, out of necessity, never to retreat, only lean in and attack her opponents.

In 2010, Bebe entered her first official wheelchair fencing competition, demonstrating to all who watched her that she was strong, energetic, and fearless.

The next year, Bebe won her first international competition and soon joined the Italian National Paralympic Fencing Team, where she began training for the World Cup. While Bebe had certainly proven her skills, she competed with reservations. At age 16, she found herself training and dueling against women fencers who were sometimes twice her age. 

When the Italian National Paralympic Fencing team made it to the final round in the World Cup, Bebe herself finished second in each of her rounds—knocking her down to tenth place. 

In the locker room, she was inconsolable, bursting into tears. Italian gold medalist Valentina Vezzali was quick to point out that Bebe still had time to become a champion. Valentina, after all, had won her first major championship until she was 21. If Bebe truly wanted to become one of the greatest athletes of all time, she would need to keep working. Bebe chose to continue pursuing her dream and began to refocus.

In 2014, losing became a thing of the past. Continuing in the path of other fearless women athletes who overcame obstacles, Bebe chose to face her adversity and turn her struggle into strength. Now she brought home the gold medal every time she competed. Unfortunately, her studies suffered. 

Bebe stood between opposing forces. Her teachers wanted her to devote most of her time to prepare for upcoming final exams, but her coaches and trainers wanted her to be fit enough for her first Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her teachers suggested that she drop out of high school, but Bebe had her sights set on attending university the following fall. She would only qualify if she earned higher than a 70 percent average.

Bebe attended school every morning and did fitness training in the afternoon. Only at night did she fence. By the end of the school schedule, Bebe was exhausted both mentally and physically. But more than anything, she was crippled by disappointment. Her coaches and teachers both thought she had more to give.

Still, Bebe squeaked by, passing with a final mark of 83 percent. She then went on to  defeat Jingjing Zhou, a gold medal champion from China and the toughest competitor she had ever faced at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

At the awards ceremony, as the Italian flag was raised during her country’s national anthem, Bebe kissed her medal and cried tears of joy. The story of her record-breaking rise quickly became an inspiration not just for disabled individuals, but also for female athletes and people involved in sports everywhere.

Bebe now attends the American University of Rome, where she studies communication, international relations, and marketing. She still balances her studies with her efforts to become a fencing champion. In 2018, Bebe again won the gold medal at the European Paralympic fencing championships.

Bebe is very vocal about the importance of vaccinations and never wants another child to endure what she did. Rather, Bebe hopes that all parents will vaccinate their children to prevent devastating illnesses from taking another child’s limbs or life.

Bebe and her parents recently founded an organization called Art4Sport ONLUS, which helps young amputees play sports for fun. The foundation supports over 30 Paralympic athletes that compete in a wide array of events from basketball to dance.

One thousand days before the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020, Bebe set her countdown clock. She’s certain that she’ll have to train harder than she did in high school, because no one wins anything by chance or luck. 

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