Chinese Gymnast Li Donghua Marries Swiss Woman, Wins Olympic Gold After Great Hardships

By Christophe95 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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.

Those years were tough on him:

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.

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10 Replies to “Chinese Gymnast Li Donghua Marries Swiss Woman, Wins Olympic Gold After Great Hardships”

  1. I heard this story long time ago. At that time, the couple lived in Switzerland not sure now where they live. Wish them all the best!

    Jocelyn, I followed your blog a lot either by webpage browsing or by the Wechat App. You are doing a great job for promoting AMWF relationships, I learned a lot from your blog. As a perfect example, you and your husband are practicing this type of AMWF relationship too. And I sincerely wish you guys have more sweet and wonderful stories to share.

  2. I forgot to ask: did you ever write a story about Marcel Nguyen, the German gymnast? His father is Vietnamese and his mother is German. There’s also skateboarder Denny Pham (North Vietnamese father, East German mother- Denny grew up in the DDR).

  3. Does anyone know why they divorced? BTW, Is this a dating site or blog of White ladies who are interested in Oriental stuff?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Xiao Liang. Not sure why they divorced. As for this website, it is a blog (not a dating site) mainly about love, family and relationships in China, including interracial and intercultural love.

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