What Happened To Sang Lan, The Gymnast Who Broke Her Neck In 1998 Vaulting?

At the age of just 17, talented Chinese gymnast Sang Lan broke her neck while vaulting at a warmup for the Goodwill Games. Then, more than a decade later, the devastating accident became huge news again when Lan attempted to sue anyone and everyone for her injuries, claiming she had been mistreated by a number of parties. Lan was both hailed as a hero for her bravery and harshly judged for her lengthy lawsuits.

In 1998, Lan's neck broke when she lost control in the middle of a forward vault and hit the ground head-first. Her chin was pushed down against her chest, fracturing her sixth and seventh vertebrae. After a period of silence, Lan would claim that she was distracted when somebody moved a mat in the middle of her routine. The damage to Lan's spinal cord was so severe that her legs were left paralyzed and she lost a great deal of movement in her arms. Lawsuits aside, her courage in the face of adversity has brought her huge celebrity status in China where she is an advocate for the disabled.

San Lang celebrated

In the aftermath of her shocking accident, Sang Lan became the subject of fascination both in the U.S. and China. While in the hospital Lan was visited by an impressive lineup of celebrities — including Leonardo DiCaprio, Celine Dion, Christopher Reeve, and Al Gore. Thankfully the positive attention seems to have bolstered her spirit to some degree. She told China Daily, "I will never forget the moment Dicaprio appeared in my ward in New York, or the moment I dropped the Times Square ball for New Year's Eve 1999. Those moments encourage me to strive for a better life. I hope I can walk again, but if not, I can handle it.”

According to Northwest Asian Weekly, Lan finally returned to China in 1999 after 10 months in an American medical facility. At home, she was also widely celebrated and grew very popular. People called her "wheelchair angel" and "the pride of all Chinese," and in 2004 and 2008, she was given the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch.

Having become a major celebrity as well as an advocate for the disabled she began working with Nike to fight for good causes. After studying Broadcasting at Peking University, her fame secured her a TV show with the Star TV network.

The $1.65 billion lawsuit

More than a decade after the accident the less inspiring side of Sang Lan's story came to light. After many years of silence, Lan opted to file an enormous lawsuit in 2011. In a monumental $1.8 billion claim, Lan sued Time Warner, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, the Chinese-American family who were appointed as her handlers in the U.S., TIG Insurance, Ted Turner, and Riverstone Claims Management (via Courthouse News).

In the complaint, Lan claimed that she had only fallen badly because a mat was moved during her routine. However, at the time, her appointed handlers — K.S. Liu and K.S. Gina Hiu-Hung — had not let her tell her story to the press. When she tried to explain, the couple told her that she had brain damage to keep her quiet. Lan's suit alleged that the wealthy Chinese-American couple were beholden to corrupt Chinese officials and that during her time in their care, Lan was subject to inappropriate touching and bathing by K.S. Liu and another male family member.

Unsurprisingly, Lan's lawsuit won her some enemies with critics calling her greedy. According to China Daily, an additional 17 people were added to the suit for sending her death and kidnapping threats online. According to Lan, the Liu family also launched a preemptive strike to try to deter the lawsuit — attempting to smear her as lazy and avaricious people and releasing her private emails and photos.

Lan's settlement

Sang Lan's enormous lawsuit resulted in a smaller payout than she was hoping for but she did receive some compensation. Part of her lawsuit hinged on the claim that Ted Turner and Time Warner were supposed to cover Lan's medical expenses, following a solemn promise by the GoodWill Games President (via Hollywood Reporter). It was also alleged that Time Warner shouldered some of the blame for the accident itself, on the grounds that they had allowed too many people to be on the floor during the event.

In the case of Time Warner, the judge ultimately ruled that any promises of compensation had been too vague to be legally binding and that Lan had not pursued legal action in a timely manner. On the other hand, Lan did receive some money from her claims. According to China Daily, Lan's lawyers reached a settlement with TIG Insurance, the company that had originally paid out for her treatment in America, and who underwrote all medical expenses for the games. As a result of the lawsuit, the company agreed to cover her medical expenses on the Chinese mainland as well.