Love Conquers All, Eventually
By Christopher Clarey
"Hello." It was June 19, 1988, in Beijing, and a 22-year-old Swiss tourist named Esperanza Friedli looked up from her map and waited for the young Chinese man in front of her to finish what he had begun.
"I was waiting for him to ask, 'Change money?' because that's what all the Chinese people were asking after they said 'hello' in 1988," she said. "But this time, it didn't happen."
Eight years later, at home in Lucerne, Friedli remembered the moment as if it were yesterday. The young man, Li Donghua, wanted to improve his limited English, not his bank balance, and so Friedli cheerfully postponed her visit to nearby Tiananmen Square and opted for a very rudimentary conversation.
It was a decision that would change both their lives and a courtesy that would lead, after a long and deeply frustrating delay, to the incongruous sight of an ethnic Chinese gymnast wearing a gold medal at the 1995 world championships while the Swiss national anthem played.
If all goes Li's way in his specialty, the pommel horse, that unprecedented scene could be replayed this summer at the Olympics in Atlanta.
"It was the first time I ever said hello to a female stranger, and the way it turned out is pretty unbelievable," Li said recently as he sat munching museli in a Lucerne restaurant with his wife, Esperanza, by his side.
Beginning Tuesday, Li and some of the world's Olympic hopefuls will be in San Juan, P.R., for the world gymnastics championships. In this Olympic year, the event is restricted to competition on individual apparatus (no all-around or team competitions). Li will be in San Juan without Esperanza, who won't see him compete in a major event until Atlanta.
Theirs is a thoroughly contemporary romance, the product of an age when travel is cheap, borders and mores are less restrictive and many backpackers, male or female, barely blink at the thought of heading off on their own to distant places with limited funds.
So it was Esperanza, a saleswoman in a Lucerne department store, was traveling by herself in China for three months. Li crossed her path there only because a serious neck injury suffered in January 1988 while attempting a new move on the parallel bars had kept him sidelines for three months and bounced him off the Chinese Olympic team.
Instead of training with the team for the 1988 Games in Seoul, Li, still a member of the national program, had enough time to register for a film course, to which he was walking that afternoon in June.
"I cried many times because I couldn't take part in Seoul," said Li, the Chinese national champion on the pommel horse in 1987. "But when I think back, I can see very clearly that I lost something but gained something else."
As it turned out, falling in love with Esperanza would also cause him to miss the next Olympics, in Barcelona, Spain. But Li had no way of knowing that in 1988 as he and his future wife talked, waving their hands and pocket dictionaries in the streets of Beijing. They did not have much time, however, because Esperanza had already purchased her return ticket to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railroad.
"I had to leave 10 days after we met," she said.
While other young travelers might have let such a romance face, Li and Esperanza did not. There were letters from Li, first one or two haltingly in his own hand and then a flood written with the help of a more fluent friend. Finally, three months after her return to Lucerne, there was a call from a public telephone in Beijing. It was Li's friend calling with Li by his side. The translation was clear enough: Li wanted her to return to China.
"When you care for someone from your own country or your own culture, you have time to make decisions, but I had to decide from one day to the next," Esperanza said.
By November 1988, she was on a plane for Hong Kong where Li was scheduled to take part in a competition. What Esperanza did not know was that Li's career as a Chinese gymnast already was over at age 22. According to Li, after he approached his coaches and explained that he planned to marry a foreigner, they told the Communist Party member in charge of his work group. Li said he was told to forget Esperanza if he wanted to remain with the national team.
Once he held firm, his ticket for Hong Kong was taken away, and Esperanza had to leave the British colony and cross the border to Guangzhou to meet up with Li. From there, they traveled west to Li's home city of Chengdu. They married and, in March 1989, they boarded the Trans-Siberian together with 13 pieces of luggage and high hopes for a fresh start in Lucerne.
Li did push-ups and calisthenics to stay in shape during the 10-day voyage, and shortly after their arrival in Lucerne, Esperanza and Li walked into the small, crowded gymnasium that serves as the training center for the city's top gymnastics club, BTV Lucerne.
Li was accustomed to the cavernous national training center in Beijing, where physical therapists and masseuses were on call for the numerous world-class gymnasts. He took one look at this facility and, for the first time, began to have serious doubts about his career move.
"It looked like gymnastics was a hobby for these people," he said.
Bruno Nietlispach, one of the club's coaches, knew nothing about Li except that he was a Chinese and spoke no German. After a short warm-up, Li walked over and began working on the pommel horse.
"My jaw dropped, and I just started laughing to myself," said Nietlispach, who would become Li's coach and business manager.
But in the years ahead, gymnastics would rarely give Li and Esperanza much reason to laugh. Swiss law stipulated that immigrants married to Swiss nationals must wait five years to acquire Swiss nationality, which meant that Li would have to wait that long before he could compete internationally. Li ended up watching the bulk of his prime athletic years, including 1992 and the Barcelona Olympics, agonizingly tick away.
"If I had known from the beginning that I would have to wait until Atlanta to compete in the Olympics, I would never have done this," he said. "There were a few times in 1992, 1993 and 1993 when I had serious doubts. I could still see my goal of competing internationally, but it was not so clear any more. I always kept on practicing, but I had to fight the negative thoughts."
He also had to cope with negative attitudes from some other Swiss gymnasts resentful of a talented interloper taking a big piece of a very small strudel in a country where the last person to excel in international gymnastics was Josef Stalder, Olympic champion on the horizontal bar in 1948.
Nonetheless, Li kept training full time, often twice a day and often with groups of prepubescent gymnasts crowding an already narrow space. He would listen to the same music over and over on the gymnasium's stereo: the sountrace from the movie "Rocky."
"I think he thinks Rocky is a little bit his story, too," Nietlispach said. "He see s himself as the underdog."
Meanwhile, Esperanza struggled to support her husband with her job at the department store. Li's only competitive outlet was the Swiss national championships, where after winning the pommel horse event three years in a row, he won the overall title in 1993. But none of those titles were official because he still was not Swiss. When international competitions were broadcast, he would videotape them and scrutinize the routines, noting trends and technical advances.
"I always compared myself to the finalists, and I always thought, 'I can do that just as well, but they won't give me the chance to show what I can do,' " he said.
His chance finally came in April 1994 at age 27 when, less than a month after receiving Swiss nationality, he traveled to Brisbane, Australia, for the world championships. Li, improbably, won the bronze medal on the pommel horse in his first international competition in more than five years.
The techniques he had learned in China and polished endlessly in Switzerland were still world class, but the gymnast was a very different person.
"In China, you always do what the coach tells you and never ask questions," Li explained. "But in Switzerland, I had to learn to train myself, to use what I had learned in China and become independent."
Since winning that medal, Li has also learned about sponsorship and interviews, which he now conducts in respectable German. But his life and Esperanza's life did not really change materially for the better until last October at the world championships in Sabae, Japan, when, as the first of eight finalists on the pommel horse, he received a score of 9.762 and watched with mounting joy as no gymnast -- not even China's Huang Huadong -- was able to surpass it.
Li then stood on the highest step of the podium and held back tears as he listened to the Swiss national anthem. Back home in Lucerne, his wife, the woman whose first name means "hope" in Spanish, was holding nothing back as she watched on television, sobbing.
"There is no question in my mind," Li said six months later, "half of this medal is mine and half of it is Esperanza's."