No wonder the 73-year-old Paralympic legend Kimie Bessho is known as “The Butterfly Lady.”
For Bessho, these accessories symbolize happiness and represent one of her favorite tactics: flicking a table tennis ball and allowing it to gracefully kiss the top of net before swiftly dropping onto the opponent’s side. Just like a butterfly, the shot is elusive and unpredictable.
It’s a strategy that has served her well — Bessho is vying to participate in her fifth Summer Paralympic Games later this year.
But Bessho says she’s risking her life for Tokyo 2020. Like thousands of Olympic hopefuls around the world, she’s constantly training despite mounting anxiety. She’s been unable to get vaccinated amid a fourth wave of Covid-19 cases in Japan, driven by more contagious variants.
She doesn’t yet know if she can be in the Paralympics. She’s traveling for her qualifiers in Slovenia this month, and Bessho says she’s scared to take an international trip unvaccinated.
“I don’t want to die of Covid,” Bessho told CNN. “If I die, I want to die in a competition after a winning smash.”
“I won’t die a boring death, but I will make a big smash,” she laughingly adds. “My friends say they’ll decorate my coffin with many ping pong balls.”
A difficult metamorphosis
Bessho grew up in Hiroshima, Japan, in a house at the top of a mountain in a rural community. One of eight children, Bessho says she was a fast runner with strong legs that allowed her to cross daunting hills to get to school each day. She was athletic from a young age, participating in volleyball, track and skiing.
But when she was 38, her husband fell ill and died. Bessho was left shocked, depressed and unable to muster the strength to go to work. When she was finally starting to move on from the grief, she began feeling numbness in her hips and legs. Eventually, she was unable to walk.
Two years after her husband’s tragic death, she was diagnosed with cancer. The operation to get rid of her tumor left her paralyzed. The doctor said she only had three years to live.
“At the time I wanted to end my life. I couldn’t do anything myself,” she said.
Paralysis was a dramatic reversal from her active lifestyle. She longed to play sports again and ride her motorcycle. Sitting still in a wheelchair for even a few minutes was painstaking. Yet Bessho persevered.
To gain independence, she enrolled in a school to teach the disabled how to drive — operating the car solely with her hands. At a gym near the driving school, she read about Paralympic sports. It inspired her to take up table tennis to help with rehabilitation.
Five years after becoming paralyzed, at age 45, Bessho began playing the sport. By 56, she was playing in her first Paralympic Games. “I became disabled, but I was also given a great gift — to play wheelchair table tennis.”
A butterfly in the wind
But in 2018, after her fourth Paralympics, Bessho suffered another setback: she was injured in two severe car accidents.
In the first, a car struck her as she was out in the city, injuring her arms and hands. In the second, a truck rear-ended her car, hospitalizing her for seven months.
But Bessho knows she’s ready to channel the resolve she’s gained from those adversities into the Olympics.
“I’ve been through so many hard times,” Bessho says. “I have overcome so many things in the last two years, so I can overcome this again.”
According to local reports, the Japanese government is planning to vaccinate both Olympians and Paralympians, and the International Olympic Committee announced that Pfizer and BioNTech will donate Covid-19 vaccine doses to participating athletes.
In the meantime, she is taking every precaution. Bessho says she disinfects everything “like crazy.”
Since the pandemic started, she keeps a daily record of each trip she’s taken outdoors, who she came into contact with and for how long, and her temperature in the morning and night.
Bessho even has a bag prepared at the entrance of her house with three days of clothing — in case she has to be taken to the hospital suddenly by an ambulance.
“I don’t know if the Olympics will be held, since the Covid situation is very bad now, but regardless, I do what I can do now. I’m enjoying training every day,” Bessho says. “If I worry too much about whether the Games will be held, I can’t do the training.”
But “The Butterfly Lady” is hoping she’ll have the chance to compete this summer and show off her improvement.
“I am mentally strong. I have a fighting spirit in me,” she announces proudly. “No matter how old I am, I’ll still beat the younger players.”
Butterflies might be delicate creatures, but this “Butterfly Lady” is seemingly indestructible.