Saturday 29 December 2012

Li Jiawei retires

Hard for Li to say goodbye
Former world table tennis champion retires after struggling with knee injury, may take on STTA role in future
By May Chen, The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2012

SHE has displayed nerves of steel against some of the world's best players. But as Li Jiawei yesterday called time on her illustrious table tennis career that included two Olympic medals and a world title, she struggled to fight back the tears.

"I've been in Singapore for 18 years," the 31-year-old said at the Singapore Table Tennis Association's (STTA) headquarters in Toa Payoh as she announced the decision to hang up her bat for good.

"It's impossible to describe my feelings now in just one or two sentences."

It is not hard to understand why, since her link to her adopted country goes beyond simply sharing the same birthday - Aug 9.

Li has spent more time here in Singapore than in China, her country of birth.

It was here where she matured from a doe-eyed 13-year-old to Olympic medallist and world champion.

It was also in Singapore where she became the face of table tennis for close to a decade.

Her near misses in the bronze medal play-off at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics gripped a nation.

Her very public relationship with former national badminton player Ronald Susilo had the country talking.

But with the veteran paddler struggling to recover from a knee injury which has kept her out of action since the London Olympics, Li felt it was time to close this chapter of her life.

Said the former world No.3: "The injury is partly why I'm retiring, but I also feel it's time for me to step down, give the younger players a chance and use the time to do something meaningful."

Li will return to Beijing where her businessman husband and three-year-old Singapore-born son are. But both player and association took pains to give assurances that Li is by no means severing ties with Singapore or the STTA.

"No matter what I choose to do from here, I hope to continue contributing to Singapore," said Li.

"I will always be a Singapore player and I want to... repay the country for the support I've received all these years."

Added STTA president Lee Bee Wah: "She will be based in China, but we will arrange for her to do something for Singapore. That's what she wants to do too."

Critics, however, argue that, despite 18 years in Singapore, she has yet to fully endear herself to the public.

At times uncomfortable with the attention on her, she is often reluctant to speak in English.

Yet few would dispute her contribution to Singapore sport.

She is just one of two Singapore athletes to have featured in four Olympics - alongside swimmer Joscelin Yeo.

She is a five-time Sportswoman of the Year winner, joining swimmer Patricia Chan as the only other athlete with that accolade.

She has also won more than 50 medals at major Games and regional and world championships.

But it was the team bronze won at the 2012 London Games, where she helped notch two out of Singapore's three winning points against South Korea, that holds most significance in her heart.

She said: "I went into that Olympics after becoming a mother and, although it was a bronze that we won, fighting to get back to the sport was something I experienced very personally.

"This was a very difficult decision to come to and I was feeling very down for a period of time. Even now, I still don't want to leave."

As if to offer herself some assurance too, Li turned around just before she stepped out of STTA yesterday, saying: "Don't worry, we'll meet again for sure."

Li's honour roll

HER 18 years in Singapore have spanned five SEA Games, three Asian Games, three Commonwealth Games, four Olympic Games and countless medals - including two from the Olympics.

Her estimated $1.27 million in earnings from the Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme also makes her the top-earning Singapore athlete so far. Here are some of Li Jiawei's career highlights:

Age: 31

Originally from: Beijing

Arrived in Singapore: May 1996

August 1999: Makes her major Games debut at the SEA Games, winning three golds and a bronze.

June 2002: Ranked world No.9, the first time she broke into the top 10.

September 2002: First title on the International Table Tennis Federation professional circuit, a doubles title with Jing Junhong at the Japan Open.

October 2002: Wins two bronzes (singles and team) at the Asian Games.

July 2004: Defeated former world No.2 Tamara Boros of Croatia to win her first singles title on the pro circuit at the US Open.

December 2005: Career-high ranking of No.3.

August 2008: Wins a team silver with Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu, Singapore's first Olympic medal in 48 years.

March 2010: Makes competitive comeback after 14-month break from the sport when she took time off to start a family.

May 2010: Part of title-winning team at the World Team Championships.

August 2012: Helps to clinch a team bronze for Singapore at the London Olympics.
Number of SEA Games golds: 14 
Number of Commonwealth Games golds: 6 
Number of Asian Games medals: 6 
Number of Olympic medals: 2

I'm no mercenary
Despite going back to China, Li Jiawei insists that 'Singapore is in my bones, in my heart'
By Lin Xinyi, The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2013

FORMER national paddler Li Jiawei returns to her native Beijing next week, but there is still a piece of Singapore that she can call her own.

Since October 2011, a freehold condominium unit along Sixth Avenue in Bukit Timah has been her home.

It was bought with a future in her adopted country in mind, and her decision to end one of the most successful sporting careers in the Republic's history is not about to change that.

"Although I'm leaving, I don't want to cut off ties," the 31-year-old told The Straits Times. "Ideally, I'll travel quite a bit between Singapore and Beijing."

The Chinese capital is where she will reunite with her parents, businessman husband, and three-year-old Singapore-born son. And while her detractors have argued that it was always her intention to go back to China, Singapore's top-earning athlete from the Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme (MAP) insists she is no mercenary.

"I know a lot of people say that. It doesn't make me angry. In my mind, there are more Singaporeans who support me than those who don't," said Li, who has earned an estimated $1.27 million from the MAP programme since she arrived here in 1996 under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Locals who have not taken to the former world No. 3 have been vocal. Some have written to forums of this newspaper, others have voiced their opinions online, while a few have even confronted Li in person.

After competing in her first of four Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, an elderly man approached her in Toa Payoh asking why she had to come to Singapore and stifle the growth of local talent.

Another time, she was in a changing room at a boutique in Orchard Road when a woman questioned why she could not just stay in China.

"I just tell them that I like Singapore," she said. "I've never felt a need to prove that I'm Singaporean. Singapore is in my bones, in my heart."

Her results on court have seldom been the subject of cross-examination. She has made two trips to the Olympic podium, owns a world team title and six Asian Games medals.

Along with seven Commonwealth Games and 14 SEA Games golds, her achievements have made her the first millionairess athlete in Singapore, and she is not about to feel guilty about that.

"I think it's quite natural to get some rewards for my efforts," said Li, who will be selling her white BMW 5 Series sedan that she bought last year but not her top-floor apartment, which she will not be renting out either.

"But no matter what I do next in life, I still want to give back to Singapore."

With the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) set to make an announcement regarding the next phase of her career, Li was coy about her new job.

She would only say that she will work for a company in Beijing that has links to Singapore, although she revealed that her interest lies in public relations.

If not for a stubborn knee injury and a family who want to see more of her, Li conceded that she would still be wielding a bat.

She had wanted to prove to herself that she could make the 2016 Rio Olympics and plug a gap in her otherwise impressive CV - she is still missing an individual medal after fourth-place finishes in the women's singles at the 2004 and 2008 Games.

But she knows she is leaving the sport on a high.

At the London Olympics last year, she won both the second singles and doubles matches in Singapore's 3-0 win over South Korea in the women's team bronze-medal play-off.

Coincidentally, her last match on the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour last year was also a win over Korean duo Dang Ye Seo and Seok Ha Jung, giving Li and Wang Yuegu the Brazil Open women's doubles title.

"My playing days ended perfectly," a smiling Li said at her two-storey, three-bedroom home, which is conspicuously devoid of medals and trophies.

But once an athlete, always an athlete. Five days ago, feeling the urge to do what she has known almost all her life, she turned up for the national team's training session at the STTA to practise for more than an hour.

That trip, however, only served to make her realise what she would be missing after announcing her retirement a fortnight ago.

"The squad now sing the national anthem before the start of training every Monday morning," she said.

"When I heard it that day, it dawned on me that I won't have the chance to stand on a podium again."

The void she felt grew that night, when she was packing her luggage and found a pot that she and room-mate Sun Beibei used to cook noodles and rice with while on Tour. She took it out, cleaned it, and thought of how much she would miss travelling on the professional circuit.

There are memories from more than 115 tournaments, some of which hang on the walls of her home among family portraits and photos of her son, Terry.

"Getting used to retirement has been harder than I expected," she admitted.

But she retires knowing this: A piece of Singapore's sporting history will always belong to her.


The only regret is that I don't have an individual medal from the Olympics. But I'll give myself 90 out of 100 for what I've achieved in the sport.

- Li, a four-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medallist in the team event


I really do feel like playing on, even if it means competing in fewer tournaments. I feel I can still compete and make the 2016 Olympics. But injury and family commitments have forced me to retire.

- Li, on calling time on her 14-year table tennis career


I'm not a player who came to play for five to six years and then left. I'm not like that. Relationships mean a lot to me and I want to do something that will continue to link me and Singapore.

- Li, promising she will continue to contribute to Singapore in her next job after spending 18 years here


National service is something every Singaporean man has to do. This is his duty. It's an honour.

- Li, vowing that her son Terry, three, will do national service when it is time

* Former paddler Li Jiawei gives back
By Ian Kiew and Ho Cai Jun, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2017

Former national paddler Li Jiawei hopes to groom the next generation of local Olympians at the Jiawei Table Tennis Academy (JTA), which opened last month.

The academy, in the Chinese Swimming Club at Amber Road, already has 25 paddlers on its books since it opened on July 1.

Li is the chief executive officer of the academy, as well as its chief coach who oversees its operations.

Other full-time coaches are hired to conduct the training sessions for the children.

Said the 35-year-old, who helped Singapore win a table tennis team bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: "Everything that I have today was given to me by Singapore. I arrived here more than 20 years ago and was given the chance by Singapore.

"Opening the academy is something I should do to give back to the country.

"It has always been my wish to nurture local paddlers.

"I hope to bring up the next generation of youth paddlers to represent Singapore and nurture another Olympic medallist."

Li, who has been based in Beijing since her retirement in 2012, will be shuttling between the two cities, with the academy up and running.

She added: "Each month when I return, I will stay for about two weeks. The parents joined the academy because they heard my name. I don't want them to think that I'm not around, I must be here."

Additionally, JTA has teamed up with the table tennis squad heading for the World University Games in Taiwan, supporting them with financial aid to travel early for a training camp tonight.

The Games start on Aug 19, giving the seven members a fortnight of preparation in Taiwan before the competition.

Li said: "One way to help them win is to get them in a competitive mode.

"JTA is still new and this was the first sponsorship opportunity that came to our attention.

"I don't have any targets for them, but I hope they give their best and can achieve outstanding results."

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