Chunli Li: New Zealand table tennis pioneer hoping to crack Olympics again at 58
You're never too old to try. That's what New Zealand's Chunli Li wants you to know.
Now, nearing her 60s, the tenacious Li isn't ready to call it quits just yet.
On the contrary: She aims to return to the top of the world stage, she suggested.
"On court, I still feel quite young. My body still feels in good shape and I don't have any injuries, and I'm quite fit. I think age is a natural thing, it is just a number. I don't think it is necessary to think about this problem all the time," she told the Olympic Channel.
Li spoke to the Olympic Channel via video call late on a Wednesday evening from Auckland, where she lives and runs a table tennis club.
But living in Auckland was never in her plans.
Growing up in Guangxi Province in China, table tennis had not yet been included the Olympics and so it was never on Li's radar. In 1981, seven years before table tennis made its debut at Seoul 1988, Li was selected for the Chinese senior national team for the first time; a year later she would win team gold and two silver medals at the Asian Championships.
The two-time Chinese mixed doubles national champion then retired from the Chinese team despite being just 25.
That year, the regional Manawatu table tennis association invited her to New Zealand in 1987 to take up a coaching position. She had previously caught the eye when she visited as part of a Chinese junior team on a table tennis tour years prior.
"To be honest I was still pretty young," she says, adding that she wasn't ready to put her paddle down just yet.
In many ways, Li became a pioneer of table tennis in New Zealand. "The table tennis level was not very high" when she arrived, and it soon became obvious that Li would resume playing – quickly becoming (and remaining) the best women's player in the country.
"When I coached the players, they saw my level was much better so they asked me to play in the nationals. I won my first title in New Zealand in 1987, and they asked me to represent New Zealand internationally," she recalls.
That meant a visit to Barcelona 1992, becoming New Zealand's 639th Olympian – "they had to order a special uniform for me because I'm not that tall," she laughs – by which time she was 30. She had to make a decision on her career.
"I had the chance to go play in Japan. My friends told me, 'Chunli, you're too old, it won't suit you.' But I went to Japan," Li recalls of her 30s.
In Japan, Li often played against top men's players. She never stopped representing New Zealand, continuing to attend the Oceania Championships (winning in 1990, 1996, 1998, and 2000), Commonwealth Games (clinching gold in 2002), and Olympic Games.
This, she says, was her way of continuously challenging herself.
"I went to Japan, and 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."
New Zealand's Olympic Committee required a top-16 standard, and as she didn't often play internationally and had almost no world ranking, Li was passed over for London 2012 and her quota spot re-allocated by the sport's governing body.
This, she admits, is still a problem – especially as she mostly has to self-fund.
"In New Zealand, because there is no professional league or team, the New Zealand Table Tennis Association can't support any of us financially," she explains.
"If I'm honest, to play international tournaments is pretty difficult. I run a club here and do a lot of coaching to earn money to support myself to practise and to go to tournaments."
As she approaches her 60s, Li has no intention to stop playing just yet.
"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," she says.
Why does she want to go to Tokyo 2020 – a fifth Games if selected?
"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.
Getting older is not a problem, Li says, as her mantra is simply to work hard and let the results follow.
"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."
Having successfully played table tennis at a high level for over four decades now, Li has advice for all table tennis players, professional and amateur alike.
"I want to say to those professional athletes, keep working towards a higher goal. Keep working hard because there will always be a champion of a bigger competition to emulate.
"To amateur players, table tennis is very fun. Continue to practice and carry on!"