Team or love. That was the choice that Chinese Olympic gymnast Li Donghua faced in 1988 when he fell for Esperanza Friedli, a young Swiss woman he met in Beijing when she was visiting China that year, as reported by China Daily. Li could either stay with China’s national gymnastics team or wed Friedli, but not both.
By then, Li was accustomed to hardship, surviving a number of devastating injuries in the course of his gymnastics career with China, including one that nearly claimed his life. Even if he stayed with the team, he would only serve as a coach, which meant he couldn’t continue pursuing his dreams of Olympic gold.
So Li Donghua left the team to marry Esperanza Friedli.
Their joyous reunion, however, couldn’t satisfy his longtime goal of medaling at the Games — which is why the couple moved to Switzerland. But the move put Li Donghua’s Olympic ambitions on hold:
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.
He had to train without any funds and his only coach was a set of video tapes.
“I had to rent the apparatus and install them by myself, but I was jobless.
“At first, there was naturally much jealousy from local gymnasts, and many Swiss did not understand why they should have a Chinese person on their team.
His wife Esperanza struggled during this time to support Li with her job at a department store.
By the time the 1996 Summer Olympics began, Li Donghua was already a decorated gymnast, winning bronze in 1994 and gold in 1995 at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championship. In Atlanta, Li finally realized his Olympic hopes, walking away with a gold medal on the pommel horse.
You have to love what he said of his Olympic win:
“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.”
While Li Donghua and his Swiss wife ultimately divorced in 2004, their legendary story of overcoming hardships for love and Olympic gold lives on.
Want to read more coverage of Olympic-related stories? Check out our Olympics archives, where you’ll find Olympic Speedskater Shaolin Sandor Liu Has a Cool China Connection Beyond His Chinese Father and 9 Awesome Olympic Moments from Asian Figure Skaters Around the World.