Airsick, dazed and still stinging from her loss at the Athens Olympics semi-finals, all national table-tennis Li Jiawei could think when she arrived at Changi Airport last August was: “Strange, it’s so dark outside. Like something’s blocking the light.”
As the Beijing-born 23-year-old plodded towards the luggage carousel to retrieve her bags, she registered a distant murmur. It was only two minutes later that she realised what it was—a 150-strong, light-obscuring crowd of fans in the arrival hall, chanting: “Jiawei, we love you!” in unison.
It was the last thing she’d expected. The two-time Olympian, who moved to Singapore at 14 and became a citizen at 18, had gone from high to low in her two weeks in Greece last year—first, stunning the country with perhaps the biggest victory in her career to date, then relinquishing the bronze medal to South Korean underdog Kim Kyung Ah.
No one had thought she had a chance of beating China’s Wang Nan, the defending Olympic champion, in the quarter-finals. Expectations were high after her smooth victory. Then, despite an entire nation rooting for her, she lost the semi-final match, together with the $250,000 prize money she stood to gain and Singapore’s hopes of its first Olympic medal in 44 years.
But instead of losing interest, her adopted countrymen rallied around her with a newfound admiration. Uncharacteristically, Jiawei’s failure struck a deep-chord with a population mostly obsessed with success.
It made us understand, for once, that the trying mattered more than the winning, and that there could be glory in losing well. And by the time she returned, most of us had even developed an acute fondness for the young woman with the snowy skin and steely stare, who’d tried so hard, wanted it so much, and yet, returned empty-handed.
ON EVERYONE’S LIPS
Six months after the match that broke viewers’ hearts, Jiawei talks about it with renewed confidence, but still wistful looks. She doesn’t let it show on the court, but this girl clearly doesn’t like losing.
“I cried from morning to night after the game. I’ve gone over and over every detail in my head, wondering ‘what if?’ a hundred times…” Staring at her hands, she continues: “The worst part for me was that there were other people affected by my loss. I knew how much the medal would have meant to Singapore. I felt like I should just cut off my arm and give it away since it was so useless.”
She sighs. The she straightens up in her chair, and meets your eye squarely. “I know you can’t go back in time, but I’ve improved since the Olympics. If the match were now, I could win it.”
Watching her train, you know she’s right. Jiawei has a relentless need to outdo herself. Even while sparring on a normal day, she frowns and bites her lip if she misses a service, relaxing only when she gets it right. “She’s always made it a point to surpass her previous records,” says her coach Shi Meisheng. “She’s very self-driven.”
And conscientious. After the team has practised their serves, the entire training hall is scattered with hundreds of table-tennis balls. Despite being the national team’s captain (everyone, including Olympic quarter-finalist Zhang Xueling, affectionately calls her “Big Sis”), Jiawei’s the first to grab the ball-picking net-contraption that leans in a corner.
While everyone else takes a short breather, the lone figure methodically scoops up the balls in big, clean sweeps, with a little frown of concentration between her eyes. Not one ball escapes her—she makes sure she gets every single one.
PUTTING HER MIND TO IT
It’s that level of focus that sets Jiawei apart. So much so that during last year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited her as a role model for the heart-and-soul commitment she demonstrated at the Olympics.
But for Jiawei, it’s not just a mindset she reserves for competitions, but a lifestyle. The only child of a table-tennis coach father and housewife mother got her start in the sport at seven, after a leg injury dashed her dreams of becoming a gymnast.
Despite being a natural at it, she didn’t take to the game at first but, even at that young age, pushed herself to train. The few times she did slack off, she’d splash her face with water to look like she’d put in much sweaty effort.
It paid off. At 14, she was talent-spotted at a national competition in China and enticed down to Singapore. She’s trained diligently day after day ever since, despite homesickness and frequent illness.
Now that she’s reached the point where fans inundate her with letters, well-wishes, soft toys and jars of handmade paper stars on a regular basis (so much so that they take up an entire bed in her room), the paddler hasn’t let it get to her head. The down-to-earth athlete still makes an effort to greet every single one of the Singapore Table Tennis Association staff every morning.
No awareness of her new-found celebrity status shows at all. On the day of our shoot, she trains right up until a few minutes before it begins, rushes to freshen up, then patiently bears with the makeup artist as he dolls her up (“I’m sorry, I’m not used to this! The mascara brush scares me—may I close my eyes?”). Despite it being uncomfortably hot, she then tries her best to persuade her athletic body to assume whatever position the photographer requires, laughing frequently at herself.
A SIMPLE LIFE
She’s been in Singapore for a third of her life now. But the bouts of homesickness still attack her once in a while. She still speaks Mandarin with a Beijing accent, talks to her parents on the phone everyday, eagerly savours the Chinese magazines her mother sends her every month, and attempts dishes from home with her team-mates, like salty zha jiang mian (dry noodles with a minced meat sauce).
But she considers Singapore her adopted home, and it’s not just because she’s born on Aug 9, our National Day. She’s planning to put down roots here, particularly after her engagement to national badminton player Ronald Susilo. The couple recently purchased an apartment in Kembangan.
She’s been here so long that she misses chicken rice when she’s away and automatically fastens her seatbelt no matter where in the world she is, like any true-blue Singaporean. But the self-confessed “cry-baby” still cries almost every time she has to return here from her twice-yearly visits to her parents.
Like the rest of the team, she stays in the players’ dormitories in the same three-storied Toa Payoh complex in which she trains. Her double room, which she used to share with a sparring partner who has since left, is immaculately kept with neat piles of Chinese magazines on her shelves, blanket folded neatly at the foot of her bed and not a speck of dust anywhere.
The focused athlete lives a highly disciplined life—there’s no partying or nightlife. Her rigorous twice-a-day training schedule demands that she’s up by seven every day and in bed by 11, leaving her with only enough personal time for nightly dinners and a spot of weekend shopping with Ronald.
Travelling frequently for overseas tournaments and training means Jiawei has never been able to pursue any interests outside for as long as she’d like. Despite a longstanding desire to learn how to play the piano, she had to give it up as she kept missing weekend lessons, and she talks longingly about getting her driving license.
But there’s no trace of regret or frustration. Instead she thinks “it’s nice to know a little bit of everything.” And despite all those sacrifices, she’s generous when asked to compare herself with local athletes who can’t seem to come close to her performance: “Well, they face more pressure than I do, you know. They have to juggle school and sport. For me, it’s a full-time job.”
Table tennis is her life. Coach Shi thinks that’s the key to her success. “The main difference between her and the other players I’ve coached is that she’s focused and professional, even though she’s young. She sees this as a career, so she’s whole-hearted about it.”
MEETING HER MATCH
But table tennis has a rival for her affections now: Ronald. The Indonesia-born 25-year-old, who moved here 12 years ago, proposed to her in the car with a custom-made close-to-a-carat diamond ring, after picking her up form the airport on her return from Athens. “I was so dazed after the long flight and all that unexpected attention. He got me at my weakest so I wouldn’t say no!” she jokes, remembering.
If they weren’t already, the lanky sports couple instantly became the nation’s darlings, drawing louder cheers from the 800-strong audience at last December’s President Star Charity event than Hong Kong movie star Jacky Cheung did.
It turns out that Jiawei’s strong will extends to her personal life as well. “I’m quite hot-tempered while Ronald’s more patient, so when we quarrel he lets me have my way. Then when I cool down, we’ll talk about things.”
Her favourite tactic when she’s unhappy with him is to ignore him, but it’s something Ronald must be used to by now. After all, that was her first reaction to him as well.
The national shuttler famously fell for her at first sight, when they met at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, but Jiawei wasn’t impressed. “I didn’t think much of him at first. I wasn’t even interested, because he couldn’t speak Mandarin, and I didn’t speak much English,” she recalls. “But he wouldn’t stop SMS-ing me. I thought he was crazy!”
Two years later, theirs is a true meeting of minds. The mixture of English and Mandarin they communicate in seems dependent on a lot of intuition as well. “Ronald says he only seems to understand Mandarin when I’m speaking it,” she giggles.
The couple’s new apartment will be ready by the end of the year, but she says they haven’t fixed a wedding date yet, as they’re “both approaching the peaks of our careers, so that’s our priority now”.
Yet, they’re already discussing offspring. “He wants to have 11 so that he can have his own soccer team, because I don’t like him watching too much soccer,” she laughs. “But I told him to forget it. We’ll probably have two.”
Chances are, she will have her way. After all, she’s already trained him to be more romantic. “I had to teach him how to treat me well. If left to himself, he’d never buy me gifts or plan surprises. Previously, his idea of surprising me was to change his name!” she says in mock-despair, referring to the time he added the Chinese name she’d picked for him to his IC to surprise her. “But I was surprised by his proposal—it was sweet. (Ronald made her go through five empty boxes before she found the ring.) I hope there’s more to come!”
Her next project is to help him become more independent-minded. “I think he’s too obedient. His is a conservative and traditional family, so he’s used to deferring to them too much. But he’s an adult now and I want him to make his own decisions.
“People say I’m an only child, so I must be used to having my way because my parents give in to me. But that wasn’t the case. It think it’s only because I don’t make bad decisions that people have always let me do what I like.”
GOING FOR GOLD
As far as strong wills go, hers seems to be iron-clad all around, whether in her personal or professional life. If sport is 70 per cent mental, this lass has what it takes to go a long, long way.
Jiawei’s doubles partner of eight years, and current assistant coach Jing Junhong, who herself was Her World’s Young Woman Achiever in 2000, agrees. “She’s extraordinary in that she continually raises her own standards and goals, and meets them every time.”
“For instance, if she loses a game she feels she shouldn’t have, she’ll make sure she beats that player next time—such as Wang Nan, whom she lost to during the 2000 Olympics. She’s already won many matches that no one thought she could so I know she’ll get what she wants.”
And if Jiawei has her way about it, the medal she brings back from the 2008 Beijing Olympics won’t just be Singapore’s second Olympic medal in history, but the first gold one too.
“We were talking about how she’s presently ranked fifth in the world and she asked me, ‘What do you think my goal should be now?’” recounts Junhong. “I suggested she aim to be in the top four. She said, ‘Why top four? I’m sick of being fourth. Why not No. 1?”
Jiawei herself sums it up best: “You know how people say China athletes have the don’t-win-will-die mentality? I still think like that. I have to win.”