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Badly Injured Gymnast, Who Left His Country's National Team For The Woman He Loves, Becomes A Highly Successful One

When life makes you a lemon, make lemonade is one of the most famous proverbial phrases used to encourage optimism and a positive can-do...



When life makes you a lemon, make lemonade is one of the most famous proverbial phrases used to encourage optimism and a positive can-do attitude. Some people deem it cheesy and sometimes unrealistic, and is often the butt of all jokes.

But this incredible athlete, Donghua Li proved that you can achieve what you dream of no matter what your life gives you.

Donghua, who was born in late 1967, began gymnastics at the age of 7 and joined the national team in 1983.

Everything was going well until he suffered a life threatening injury during practice. He violently bumped into the horse with his abdomen which caused his spleen and kidney to be removed.

Immediately after the incident, he asked his coach if he could resume his gymnastics career after recovery and the answer was no. But Donghua did not take no for an answer and continued doing gymnastics while having his eyes set on an Olympic gold.

Still his life got harder in 1986 when he tore both his ankle tendons and even more so when he sustained a serious neck injury while attempting a new move on the parallel bars, two years later.

The injury put an end to his Olympic dream in Seoul which left him devastated.

Suffering from severe injuries, depression and excruciating pain, Donghua knew that his career as a gymnast might end soon. 

At that time, he was in a relationship with a Swiss woman, Esperanza Friedli, whom he wanted to marry. The couple was dating while he was recovering from his last injury.  

Donghua was told that if he wants to stay with the national team, he has to forget Esperanza. But his love for her was so strong that he gave up being a part of the national team.

The couple got married and moved to Switzerland. There, he continued training and since there was no one to coach him, he was his own coach.

He would videotape international competitions and scrutinize the routines, noting trends and technical advances. Donghua was jobless and had no income, hence, his wife had to support him. He had to rent the apparatuses for himself to train.

He said that gymnasts always do what the coach tells them, no questions asked but in Switzerland, he had to learn to train himself and to use what he had learned in China, and become independent.

The native Chinese gymnast had to wait five years in order to obtain the Swiss nationality and be able to compete, which means he had to miss the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

During that time, he had serious doubts and had to fight off the negative thoughts. He participated in a couple of Swiss competitions where he won several titles but none of those titles were official as he was not yet a Swiss.  

Donghua said that the Swiss gymnasts had a hard time accepting a Chinese gymnast on their team but eventually they did. 

In 1994 at the age of 27, he was finally naturalized and went to represent his new adopted country at the World championships where he won a bronze medal on pommel horse which was Switzerland's first World medal since 1954.

The following World championships, he was crowned a champion on the same event while he settled for a silver at the 1996 World championships.

At the Atlanta Olympics, Donghua finally realized a life long dream by winning the gold medal on his favorite apparatus (pommel horse). He became the first Swiss gymnast to win an Olympic gold since 1952.

"Beside our wedding, it was the most beautiful moment" said his wife.

"Standing on the victory platform as the Swiss flag is raised in the arena, I thought 'what country am I from?' To me I have two homes, China is my home, Switzerland is my home" said the Olympic champion.

"How fortunate it is that I can call both countries home and then I thought about my wife Esperanza, I could not have done anything without her."

"As I stood at the top step of the podium, she was with me. For half of my Olympic gold medal, it belongs to her. I could not have achieved this without her."

While cheering from the stands, his wife was pregnant with his first child.

After the Olympics, he ended his career on a high note. Since then he has been working as an entrepreneur. He published his first book "Breaking the limits" in 1999 in China.

In 2007, he became a co-owner of Asianet GbmH.


Donghua has as well worked for many well-known companies such as Swatch Group, BMW, Suzuki Motorcycle, Titlisbahn and various companies as an ambassador and adviser. 

In 1995, he founded his own company "Donghua Li International Promotion GmbH".

Donghua Li is the first person to be a Chinese champion as well as a Swiss, European, world and an Olympic champion.

"He is a very strong-minded man. And our team had learned something from him," said Andreas Schweizer, a fellow Swiss gymnast.

In 2005, Donghua and Esperanza were amicably divorced. He later married Qiang Huang and had two children.

Written by Gigi Farid.

Photo by donghua-li.com

Sources: donghua-li.com - Olympic - chinadaily - news.ch - wikipedia



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