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Chinese Legends Make Long-Distance Marriage Work
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In recognition of Valentine's Day, IG Online features Olympic medal-winning gymnastics couple Li Yuejiu and Wu Jiani of China. Li and Wu, married for 21 years, are making their intercontinental marriage work.
Wu and Li

"I support what he does," says the Illinois-based Wu of husband Li, who since December 2004 has been working as a coordinator for the Chinese national team in Beijing. "He's really happy what he's doing, and he feels he can do something for the Chinese as an American citizen. The Chinese coaches asked him to help out with our country, and he really wanted to support the Chinese team."

Wu and Li, who ended their competitive careers at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, have been married since 1986. Li accepted a men's coaching position in Canada in 1985, where Wu joined him after their wedding. In 1987 they moved to Las Vegas, and began coaching women's gymnastics together.

For the past five years, home has been the Chicago area, where Wu still coaches at the Aerials Gymnastics Club in Downers Grove. Among the gymnasts they produced is daughter Anna, a former elite who now competes for UCLA. They also have a daughter Andrea, age 5.

Wu says she and Li are together approximately four times per year, for a period of two or three weeks each time. Last fall she enjoyed an extra visit with him, by traveling to the World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, where he was part of the Chinese delegation. The Li family was last together for the 2006 Christmas holidays.

Wu admits that coaching and everyday life are more difficult with Li so far away.

"It is harder without him," Wu says. "Not coaching with him was hard, especially the first year when Anna was still in the elite program. We always talked to each other and made decisions together, and now I had to do it on my own. I also have to look after the house and fix the car on my own, which I didn't have to do before."

To stay connected, Wu and Li spend time together every day via webcam. The couple meets online after Wu gets home from work, at around 10 p.m. That is noon in Beijing, when Li has a two-hour break after the Chinese team's morning training session.

"It helps a lot, because my little one likes to see Daddy every day," Wu says.

Wu Jiani

A native of Shanghai, Wu helped the Chinese women win their first World Championships team medal, a silver at the 1981 Worlds in Moscow. She also tied for the bronze medal on balance beam, where she performed a back dive across the beam to hip circle around the beam. Although Wu was the first gymnast to perform this trick in World Championships competition, it was later named the "Yurchenko loop" in recognition of Soviet gymnast Natalia Yurchenko. (Wu, who first performed it in 1980, says Chinese officials did not usually submit original tricks for recognition at the time.)

Wu placed ninth all-around, second on balance beam and fourth (tie) on floor exercise at the 1982 World Cup in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. She won the all-around title at the 1982 Chunichi Cup in Nagoya, Japan. At the 1983 World Championships in Budapest, Wu was a member of China's fifth-place team. She ended her career at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, where she won a team bronze medal.

In addition to her balance beam skill, Wu performed an original trick on uneven bars: the "Wu" (facing the high bar, beat uprise to straddle vault over the high bar, catch in eagle grip, straddle back to the low bar). Her dismount was a back hip circle to hecht back salto off the high bar.

Li, who hails from Liaoning, earned the nickname "Thunder Thighs" for his powerful tumbling legs. On floor exercise, his skills included a tucked double-twisting double back, and a straddled side 1-3/4 somersault. He dismounted high bar with a triple back.

At the 1979 World Championships in Fort Worth, Li was 13th all-around and tied for sixth on floor exercise. He and his Chinese teammates finished fifth in their return to world competition.

Li's success at the 1980 World Cup in Toronto earned him a place on the cover of the January 1981 issue of International Gymnast magazine. He finished first on parallel bars, tied for second on floor exercise, and was fifth all-around.

At the 1981 World Championships in Moscow, Li became China's first male world champion when he tied Russia's Yuri Korolyov for the gold medal on floor exercise, and won a team bronze medal. He tied for eighth all-around at the 1982 World Cup in Zagreb. Li helped the Chinese men win their first world team title at the 1983 Worlds in Budapest, where they defeated the Soviet Union by 0.10. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Li won a team silver medal.

Wu and Li got acquainted at the Chinese national training center, when Wu was a pre-teen.

"We met the first day I went to the national training center," recalls Wu. "Yuejiu was already there. He was always a really big help to the little ones going to the training center because we were away from home. Our group really enjoyed his help. We didn't start dating till I was 18. A couple months before the Olympics we started being boyfriend and girlfriend. We kept it quiet!"

Wu says their nine-year age difference became less significant as she got older and their romance blossomed. "At that time he was way older than I," Wu says, laughing. "But it just came naturally. You can't help it; it happens."

Li Yuejiu

Gymnastics has always been the center of their family life, but Wu says she and Li enjoy their mutual profession.

"Our whole family is in gymnastics, and we actually work really well," she explains. "We really don't have that many conflicts. If we do have a difference, we talk about which way works better for the gymnast. We coached together for almost 20 years. I don't think we had any problems with that, but maybe sometimes coaching your own daughter, when she got injuries."

Wu says that coaching Anna could be difficult at times, since she and Li served dual roles as Anna's parents and coaches.

"It is really hard," Wu admits. "I'm sure Anna sometimes didn't feel she had people to comfort her when she had a bad day in the gym, because we rode home in the car together. We really tried not to talk about gym at home, but the tension was still there. But she always held her own. She's really hard on herself, so sometimes I have to turn around the other way, to comfort her. But she doesn't think it's working for her, even though deep down she knows what I'm saying and what we're thinking."

In January 2007, Wu and Li had the opportunity to watch Anna compete in her first home meet at UCLA - held in Pauley Pavilion, the arena in which the couple won their 1984 Olympic medals.

Wu said she and Li are proud of Anna's accomplishments, which include qualifying for the 2004 and 2005 U.S. Championships. Anna place 16th all-around at the 2005 U.S. Championships, in spite of a foot injury that prevented her from training vault or floor exercise for a few week weeks prior to the meet.

"Anna's a really tough girl, and she went through a lot with her injuries," Wu says. "Most of the frustrating things were because of injury. It wasn't a problem with skills, because she's a really hard worker. But an injury is so emotional with the mom, dad and the kid involved. Even when we didn't want her to train that hard, she wanted to. But we tried to help her do the best she can do. It was tough, but somehow we managed and got her through to a scholarship."

Wu said Anna is ambitious for more gymnastics success.

"Anna's not happy just getting a scholarship," Wu says. "She really wants to do well. She thinks she wants to go back to the elite level. She's always thinking about it. Gymnastics is everything to Anna. She never gives up."

Wu says she continues to offer Anna some coaching advice from afar, although she defers to the UCLA coaching staff.

"I do a little bit, because I really know her," Wu says. "Sometimes she gets a little frustrated with the training, because she's not used to the different way. The thing I constantly remind her is that, because she's not naturally powerful, when you're in pain, you don't have to do the skills and pounding. Just keep up all the conditioning and strength, and the skills are going to be there. You don't forget the skills. Also, to be sure she has safe, healthy workout. My husband and I have always had safe training for our gymnasts, so I keep reminding her of that."

As Wu and Li continue their gymnastics careers on a professional level, Wu says she is grateful that Anna has the opportunity to compete while learning how to be independent.

"Anna knows the sport very well with her body, and hopefully she can keep up that way," Wu says. "I try not to interfere with the college coaches, because they have their way to deal with the college kids. I'm happy with what they do. It's not just gymnastics. They teach the kids how to live their lives."

Wu and Li are featured in the following issues of International Gymnast magazine:

February 1983 - 1982 Chunichi Cup photo gallery (includes Wu)
September 1982 - Li on cover photo collage, 1982 International Invitational coverage (Wu)
October 1981 - USA vs. China coverage Part II (Wu and Li)
September 1981 - USA vs. China coverage Part I (Wu and Li)
May 1981 - International Mixed Pairs coverage (Li)
January 1981 - Li on cover, 1980 World Cup coverage (Li)
March 1979 - 1978 Asian Games report (Li)

To order back issues of IG Magazine, click here.

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