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China Gymnast Has Titanic-Size Wish

July 29, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Chinese gymnast paralyzed at the Goodwill Games has a Titanic-size wish: a visit from heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.

If DiCaprio can’t make it, Celine Dion or the Spice Girls also are high on Sang Lan’s wish-list.

Sang remained in a pediatric intensive care unit at the Nassau County Medical Center on Wednesday. A bulletin board, adorned with DiCaprio’s picture and cards from hundreds of well-wishers, were on a wall near her bed.

The 17-year-old, China’s 1997 national vault champion, ``is fascinated with American pop culture,″ says Shelley Lotenberg, spokeswoman for the Nassau County Medical Center on Long Island. ``She told us she wanted to meet with Leonardo.″

Sang, who broke her neck last week during a warmup vault at the Nassau Coliseum, underwent surgery Saturday. She has no sensation from the chest down, and doctors say she probably never will walk again. Her toes moved during one examination, but her doctors discounted it as an involuntary twitch.

Still, the operation left her in good spirits.

``I am so happy. I feel no more pain in my neck,″ she told a Chinese reporter Tuesday. She’s also inquiring about how her fellow gymnasts are doing in the games.

And she dreams of seeing ``Titanic.″ She was disappointed when told the movie wasn’t yet available on video; Lotenberg is trying to get a copy from Paramount.

DiCaprio’s Los Angeles publicist, Cindy Guagenti, said she told him of Sang’s wish, and he was deciding exactly how he might respond. Lotenberg said later Wednesday that the hospital had been contacted by ``about a possible arrangement for a visit by DiCaprio.″

Just in case the 23-year-old movie star were to appear at her bedside, the diminutive athlete has learned a few words of English, and can say, ``Hi, how are you?″

Kim Jakwerth, Dion’s Los Angeles publicist, said she had left a message at the singer’s home in Florida and was waiting to hear from her. ``I know Celine likes to do anything she can for people,″ Jakwerth said.

A representative for the Spice Girls, based in England, would not comment on the request.

When the athlete’s parents arrived from China on Saturday, she reassured them: ``Mother, Father, don’t cry, be strong, OK?″

On Tuesday, one of China’s vice premiers, Qian Qichen, made a special stopover in New York to see her on his way home from a Caribbean trip. He was joined in Sang’s hospital room by China’s ambassador to the United States, its vice minister of foreign affairs and the Chinese consul general in New York.

Earlier in the week, she also received a visit from former football player Dennis Byrd of the Jets, who overcame paralysis suffered six years ago when he collided with a teammate.

Her parents are considering several options for long-term rehabilitation, including facilities in the United States, Lotenberg said. For now, Sang is being treated with SYGEN, the same nerve-building drug that helped Byrd recover.

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