Li Chunli was China’s gift to New Zealand sport.
She was born in Guiping, Guangxi, China, in 1962. Like so many other Chinese, she was already playing sport seriously as a nine-year-old. It was soon obvious she had a special affinity for table tennis and during her teenage years she attended a special table tennis school.
She cracked the Chinese national team in 1981, being a team member for three years. In table tennis-crazy China, she was twice that country's mixed doubles champion.
Chunli's New Zealand connection started in 1980, when she toured with a Chinese junior team. The visit led to an invitation from the Manawatu association to coach, but it was seven years before she could take up the offer.
For the next 20 years – and in truth probably longer – she was the best women’s player in New Zealand by a considerable margin. She never lost to a New Zealand opponent. Her closest opposition was her younger sister, Karen Li.
She described the move to New Zealand as the best decision of her life. “My adopted country has given me so much, I'll ever be thankful for it," she said.
Chunli won the New Zealand singles title nine years in succession, then never played the tournament again – she spent part of each year living in Tokyo and took part in the lucrative professional Japanese leagues. She also often played leading men.
However, Chunli was always fiercely proud of her New Zealand links. She represented New Zealand at four Olympics – Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 and in the Commonwealth Games, plus various world, Commonwealth and Oceania championships.
Her glory year was 2002, when she was 40, and performed wonderfully at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, winning the singles gold medal, taking the women’s doubles silver with her sister Karen, and picking up bronzes in the mixed doubles (with Peter Jackson) and women’s team competition (with Karen Li, Tracey McLauchlan and Laura-Lee Smith).
Chunli’s efforts in Manchester raised table tennis’ profile in New Zealand. What was probably not appreciated by most New Zealand sports followers was how hot competition is in table tennis, one of the world’s most popular sports, with 40 million competitors.
Chunli was the second-oldest competitor in the New Zealand Games team at Manchester and the oldest entrant in the table tennis. The ageless Chunli was described there by English journalists as the Martina Navratilova of table tennis. For a player of her age, her stamina, determination and competitiveness were outstanding.
Going into the table tennis competition ranked world No 47 (an artificially low ranking because she did not play fulltime on the world circuit), she beat Singapore pair Jing Jun Hong and Li Jia Wei, the world No 9 and 16 players, twice apiece, in the teams event and the singles competition.
Her gold – one of New Zealand's 11 in Manchester – was secured when she beat Li Jia Wei 11-6, 11-9, 5-11, 11-5, 11-8 in the singles final, one of the best wins of her career.
In total at Manchester, Li Chunli won a remarkable 24 out of 26 games. She was named one of the Halberg Sportswoman of the Year finalists for her efforts at the Games.
Long-serving New Zealand team chef de mission Dave Currie said of her: “An outstanding competitor and contributor to her teams. She has a real presence and is well respected by all members of the wider New Zealand team. She has the ability to be a very inspirational motivator and role model in her sport and has the work ethic to be effective in any role she sets her mind to.”
Throughout her career, Chunli endeared herself to journalists by finishing every post-match interview with: “Thank you for coming,” and a smile.
She was always a fascinating study. She employed the pen grip as opposed to the more common handshake style. Whether playing singles, or doubles with her sister, she was ever on the move and played a measured sort of game, weighing up when to play safe and when to strike out. With Chunli, the eyes told a lot. She’d fire a quick look at her partner or silently scold herself if something stupid was done. Behind the genial exterior was the steel of a champion.
Chunli’s highest world ranking was 19th and in 1997 she was a World Cup semi-finalist.
In her Olympic debut in Barcelona in 1992, she won two of her three pool games and lost to Yu Sun-Bok, the eventual bronze medallist. It was a tough draw. In many pools, Chunli would have advanced to the play-offs.
Four years later in Atlanta, she again won two pool matches, but did not advance because she was beaten by former Olympic gold medallist (and 1996 silver medallist) Chen Jing of Taipei. Again, it was a very difficult draw.
She progressed further at Sydney in 2000, winning both her pool matches, before running into eventual gold medallist Wang Nan in her first play-off match. Nan was too goo and won 21-17, 21-15, 21-9, but Chunli turned in an extremely competitive showing against a masterly player. Li Chunli and Karen Li won one of their two matches in the doubles competition, but did not advance to the play-offs.
Chunli bade farewell to Olympic table tennis at Athens in 2004, at the age of 42. After winning her first match, she pushed world No. 1 (and eventual gold medallist) Zhang Yining hard in the first two games before losing 11-8, 12-10, 11-5, 11-7. It was a lot more testing a match than many Yining had in Athens. And after two tough doubles matches - a win and a loss - with Karen Li the previous day, Chunli quietly bemoaned her advancing years and lamented the draw that pitted her against Zhang so early.
As coach Simeon Cairns said: “In those first two games Chunli really showed her class. She could have beaten anyone outside the world's top two on that performance.”
It must be said that Chunli struck unusually difficult draws in all four of her Olympic outings. She knew it, too, but seldom said much about it.
After the 2004 Olympics, Chunli was appointed national women's coach and began travelling with the New Zealand team to major events, including the 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Then late in 2012, aged 50, she had a crack at qualifying for the London Olympics. "I started again because I like to challenge myself,” she said. “I am 50 and I just wanted to know how far I can go at this age. It's hard to get to an Olympics if you play table tennis in New Zealand, the NZOC requires a very, very high standard.” She played very well at the Oceania qualifying tournament in Sydney, winning six of her seven matches to grab the second of three available Olympic slots. She backed that up by winning the International Table Tennis Federation’s Oceania Cup in Fiji, surviving a gruelling seven-game final against Jian Fang Lay of Australia. But the NZOC required a top 16 Olympic standard, and Chunli, with no world ranking to speak of, was not chosen.
Nevertheless, her effort at such an advanced age for a player in such a vigorous sport was indeed remarkable.