Anna Li got her first glimpse of a gym when she was 17 days old and started training as a gymnast at age 4.
Now, at 23, the Aurora native is one of few post-collegiate gymnasts to make it to the Olympics, after it was announced last Sunday she will be an alternate for the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team.
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Family and friends gathered Monday at Eola Community Center in Aurora as part of a formal send-off to wish Li luck at the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"It was amazing," Li said of the celebration. "I wasn't expecting seeing confetti flying everywhere, and it was so cute with all the cheerleaders chanting my name, so it's just an amazing feeling to be a part of it."
Mayor Tom Weisner awarded Li with the title of Aurora Hometown Hero and presented her with a proclamation from Gov. Pat Quinn declaring July 9 as Anna Li Day in Illinois.
"We are very proud to have Anna Li representing one of the best countries in the world," Weisner said.
After graduating from Waubonsie Valley High School in 2006, Li attended UCLA on a full-ride scholarship, where she ended her college career by leading the women's gymnastics team to an NCAA championship title her senior year.
But eight months after graduating, Li felt like she was not done competing at the elite level and decided to make a comeback.
"I wanted to finish without any regrets," Li said. "I had a dream of being in the Olympics since I was a little girl. It's never too late to believe in your dreams."
Though Li is quite a few years older than most Olympic gymnasts, those close to her see her age as an advantage.
"She's definitely more mature and easier to coach because she understands better," said Jiani Wu, Li's mother and coach. "When you're young, you kind of want to do it. You work hard but you're not really absorbing what exactly that means. You just kind of do it because an adult told you to do it."
This won't be the first time Li's family will be in the Olympic realm. Both of Li's parents competed for China as gymnasts in the 1984 Summer Olympics, something that has been an inspiration for Li.
"I always said I wanted to be like my parents and go to the Olympics since I was little," she said. "Everyone says 'who do you look up to?' and I always say my parents."
The road to the Olympics wasn't an easy one for Li. In high school, she underwent surgery and had two screws put in her left foot. She had the same surgery done on her right foot in October after competing all last year on a broken foot.
But none of that has stopped Li from going after her childhood dream.
"We go through many injuries, and it's pretty normal to have sprains and tears and breaks," she said. "But you train your whole life for that one moment, and you're not just going to give up."