26 Sep 2020

A veteran from New Zealand with a global experience few can match, Li Chunli is working hard to make an unprecedented return to the Olympic Games after a 17 year absence.

Her most recent appearance in the quadrennial event was in 2000 in Sydney; her aim Tokyo.

by Kabir Nagpal

Winner of the women’s singles title on the first occasion when table tennis was included in the Commonwealth Games in 2002 in Manchester, Li Chunli has been away from the Olympic Games scene for over a decade.

A veteran style

As a right handed pen-holder, Li has always used only one side of the racket, creating angles from the backhand with her blocking skills. By using the short pimples, Li has managed to impose her powerful forehand as her biggest strength.

The strength has been seen in major tournaments, not in the least at her first Olympic Games appearance in 1992 in Barcelona, followed by 1996 in Atlanta. Her women’s singles campaign continued in Sydney in 2000, where she also partnered her younger sister, Karen Li in the women’s doubles, becoming the only sisters ever to compete as a pair at the Olympic Games in table tennis.

Her final appearance the Olympic Games was in Athens, 2004 where she finished in the ninth position in the women’s doubles event – her highest in the competition. Despite having Rio 2016, it ended up not working out for her as the New Zealand National Olympic Committee did not grant her the approval.

Li Chunli prepares to return a shot during a match at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. (Photo by Michael Bradley)

Her thoughts are now focused on the competition next year in Tokyo, and she knows it will not be an easy task. Her reasons though are fairly simple:

“I don’t have a limit and I don’t think this way. I think I would like to just keep going until one day maybe I can’t move! I will go 100 per cent and find out later where the limit is. Every time someone told me I was too old, maybe because I didn’t know if I was really too old for it and because I love to play, I decided to give it a go. And I succeeded each time. So this time, I’m thinking again – now that I’m almost 60, do I want to try again? I really want to challenge myself. Only after I try will I know if I’m really too old for this. I won’t know if I don’t try.” Chunli Li

However, during the time between her last appearance at an Olympic Games and today, Li has been quite busy in her exploits everywhere else.

Glory days and the turns ahead

Having featured in four major Women’s World Cups (1997, 1998, 2012, 2013), Li was very prevalent on the global scene at the start of the new century.

At the 1997 World Cup in Shanghai, she finished in 3rd place, which remains to this day the best ever finish by a player from Oceania. On the day, she lost to China’s legendary Wang Nan in semi-finals, before seeing off the challenge of Canada’s Geng Lijuan in the third-place match.

More recently at Kobe in 2013, Li finished in third place at the group stage, losing to Austria’s Liu Jia and American Ariel Hsing.

Her appearance in 2013 was seen as a surprise after she was expected to retire after the 2002 Commonwealth Games. At the tournament she secured an impressive women’s singles gold when she defeated favourite Li Jiawei. Earlier she won a silver medal with her sister in the women’s doubles and women’s team bronze alongside Karen Li, Tracey McLauchlan and Laura-Lee Smith.

Speaking recently to the Olympic Channel, Li Chunli remembers the time when she was clearly at her peak:

“In my 30s I reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and ended up third (in 1997). Then at 40, I won the Commonwealth Games. After returning to coaching in New Zealand in my 50s, I thought: ‘I want to play competitions again, I want to play in the Olympic trials.’ My Kiwi friends again said, “Chunli, you’re too old.” But in 2012, when I was 50, I became the Oceania continental champion again. I actually also won the Olympic trials then, and could have been selected, but I didn’t reach a certain mark.” Li Chunli

After becoming the New Zealand coach in 2004, she retired officially until 2011 – coming back with clear targets and leading her national team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow.

In 2017, she was further invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit by the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy – making her one of the inspiring figures of her country.

Her drive and work ethic to keep moving towards the 2021 Olympic Games dream requires all of that, and more. The New Zealand’s Olympic Committee generally requires a top-16 standard, which means it will be a very difficult task for Chunli Li to qualify.

Notably, as she mentioned to the Olympic Channel, we believe it is about the mentality of an athlete which matters in such circumstances.

“To be successful at anything, the conditions have to be right, but your mentality is also very important. If you really want to succeed, and you really want to do or achieve something, your ability can exceed what you expect it to normally do. Table tennis is a very difficult sport, to become play to the level of a champion you indeed need to have speed and power, and of course experience. But personally, I think most athletes are able to achieve this as long as they enjoy it, show persistence, and practise non-stop.” Li Chunli

Source: Olympic Channel

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