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updated: 8/11/2012 8:59 PM

Aurora gymnast Anna Li considers herself lucky

Bad fall on July 24 could have paralyzed Olympic alternate

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  • Aurora native Anna Li was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. women's gymnastics team for the 2012 Olympics. She suffered a severe neck injury on July 24, but was able to stay overseas to watch the U.S. capture the team gold medal.

       Aurora native Anna Li was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. women's gymnastics team for the 2012 Olympics. She suffered a severe neck injury on July 24, but was able to stay overseas to watch the U.S. capture the team gold medal.
    John McGillen | Staff Photographer

  • Anna Li, who was chosen last Sunday as an alternate member of the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team for the upcoming London Olympic Games, was presented an award by Mayor Weisner during a sendoff celebration in Aurora on Monday.

       Anna Li, who was chosen last Sunday as an alternate member of the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team for the upcoming London Olympic Games, was presented an award by Mayor Weisner during a sendoff celebration in Aurora on Monday.
    John McGillen | Staff Photographer

 
By Chad Thornburg
cthornburg@dailyherald.com

When Anna Li injured her neck training as an alternate for the U.S. women's gymnastics team, she was advised to return home for treatment.

But the 23-year-old Aurora native did everything in her power to stay in London and experience the Olympics.

"I felt like I worked so hard for it that I deserved to at least go to London and see what it was like and experience it since that was my dream the whole time," Li said. "The goal that I focused on every day in training was just to get to London."

Li saw doctors in London, was put in a neck brace and was able to delay her return home until after the gymnastics team finals.

"I knew that whether I went home or not, it wasn't going to change my healing process," she said.

On July 24, just a few days prior to the opening ceremonies, while practicing her uneven bars routine, Li slipped at the end of a dismount, landing on the top of her neck with her feet over her head.

"It was a bad fall, but I was lucky because all of the doctors said I should have been paralyzed right now," Li said.

Li returned to the U.S. on Aug. 1 and is currently in the process of getting multiple opinions from doctors for her injury, but said she is no longer in pain.

"It's really fortunate," said her mother and coach Jiani Wu. "It could have gone so terribly wrong."

As an alternate, however, Li would have had to replace an active member of the team by July 28 to compete in the games, and neither of the remaining two U.S. alternates were used in competition.

The U.S. women's gymnastics team finished first in team competition and although Li would have preferred to be competing alongside them, she enjoyed watching her teammates take home the gold.

"We all train together and you know how prepared everyone is," she said "You know that the job was going to get done anyway."

It was, however, difficult watching the uneven bars event from home.

Li is among the top uneven bars competitors in the world and her 6.90 start score is the highest of the American gymnasts in what is likely the team's weakest event.

"That was tough to watch," she said. "I could hit my routine easily by the way we've been training … but I knew the girls that won were amazing bar workers."

All-around gold-medalist Gabby Douglas finished last for the United States in the event. Aliya Mustafina won gold for Russia.

Douglas recorded the top uneven bars score in the U.S. Olympic trials on July 1 and Li finished third behind Kyla Ross, who also made the U.S. team.

"It was really hard to see because she knows her bars and she knows she was capable to possibly medal, too," Wu said. "She knows how much she can do on that bar routine and it is a little hard, but at the same time, for her to come back in and make it that far, I keep telling her, 'You should be proud.'

"She's just really hard on herself, always," Wu added.

Li's journey to London was an unlikely story. At age, 23, she is the oldest gymnast on the U.S. team by at least five years.

After competing at the elite level for several years, Li opted to accept a gymnastics scholarship at UCLA rather than train for Beijing in 2008.

"I had already been at the Olympic level for four years before that and my outcomes weren't as high as I wanted them to be," she said. "I felt like it was really important to get an education no matter what in life. Gymnastics is sadly short-term. It's not going to be forever."

But after gradating from UCLA in 2010, Li reignited her elite career and set her eyes on London 2012 in hopes of fulfilling her Olympic dreams.

"I knew she always wanted it," Wu said. "She wanted to just get back in and give it another shot."

And on July 1, the Aurora-native was named an alternative to the U.S. women's gymnastics team. While she wouldn't be competing, she had achieved her goal of making it to London.

"I get to say that I was a part of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and they won gold," she said. "We all had our different jobs and duties while we were there and I know that I did my job really well."

Li's parents both medaled in gymnastics during the 1984 Olympic games competing for China -- Jiani Wu was a member of the women's team that won the bronze medal and Li's father, Yeujui Li, won silver with the men's team.

Li grew up watching the games every four years and heard stories of her parents' experiences. Being part of the massive international sporting herself was a surreal experience.

"It was really weird watching all of the Olympic trials at first because I was so excited watching everyone and I was packing and getting ready to go to my own Olympic trials," she said. "I was like, 'Wow, I'm going to be on T.V. doing the same thing.'"

Li's Olympic experience may have ended after the team finals, but she is still watching the Olympics coverage from home.

"It's really fun to see all the other athletes have that same feeling and moment when they work their whole lives for it," she said.

Li has become something of a celebrity at her gym in Carol Stream, which her parents own. Posters featuring Li and the U.S. team cover the walls at Legacy Elite Gymnastics and as she recovers from her injury, Li spends much of time working with the young girls training there.

"It's so nice to be in the gym because I don't have much to do right now," she said. "The main thing that I enjoy about gymnastics is giving back, especially because I told the girls to never give up their dreams. ... It's really exciting for them and they all run up to me every day and they all say hi really excited so it's fun to just help them and tell them every day to not give up."

After all, Li didn't give up on her Olympic dream and it came true.

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