People

Table Tennis: Son brings extra fulfilment to Li Jiawei's focus on academy

Li Jiawei, who retired in 2012, trains about 30 students between the ages of six and 12 at her table tennis academy, which was launched last month. Her goal is to develop some of them into national players.
Li Jiawei, who retired in 2012, trains about 30 students between the ages of six and 12 at her table tennis academy, which was launched last month. Her goal is to develop some of them into national players.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Li Jiawei is a two-time Olympic medallist who is training other people's children in table tennis. Yet, the former national paddler's own son is far from keen on the sport.

Trying to get Terry, or Tian Rui, to develop a liking for it has been a challenge, she admitted.

Li recounted: "When I first got him to play, he would cry.

"When I wanted him to train for an hour, he would crawl under the table and I would have a hard time catching him.

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"When he knows that something is tiring, or when he sees an activity that is out in the heat, he refuses to go out. He would rather stay inside the air-conditioned room than go (outdoors)."

Another irony is that Li sees parts of herself in her son, who will turn eight in October. "In a way, he's as spoilt as me. I might not have shown it but I would grumble in my heart," she confessed.

"But I have learnt as a professional to take everything seriously despite the difficulties," added Li, who was often stoic in her playing days.


PHOTO COURTESY OF LI JIAWEI

"So I want to raise my child with the same values through table tennis, which I think will be good for his hand-eye reflexes."

Her Singapore-born son, who started wearing glasses last month, now does a three-hour weekly training session.

Children are Li's daily focus nowadays, particularly the trainees at her Jiawei Table Tennis Academy, which was launched last month.

As the chief coach of the academy, she trains about 30 students between the ages of six and 12 at the Chinese Swimming Club. Both members and non-members of the Amber Road club can sign up for the academy programmes, which are held every day except Fridays.

Despite a distinguished resume which includes six Asian Games medals, four Commonwealth Games and six SEA Games golds as well as a world team title, Li cautions against expectations that she will produce a new generation that is equally successful.

SHARED VISION

I want to raise my child with the same values through table tennis, which I think will be good for his hand-eye reflexes.

LI JIAWEI, on establishing a common sporting interest with her son.

She said: "I dare not say that I am able to groom the next world champion. But I can nurture the kids to acquire good sportsmanship with a never-give-up attitude.

"Many of them are starting from zero. The goal I gave myself is to train them towards joining the STTA (Singapore Table Tennis Association), so that they can hopefully become national players one day."

She noted the challenges that come with Singapore's academic-first education system, and said: "It is not good to take frequent breaks due to studies or examinations, or to turn up late for training sessions because of these reasons."

Setting up the academy was also a homecoming of sorts for Li, who first set foot in Singapore in 1996 as a 14-year-old who was talent-scouted from Beijing.

Following her retirement from competition in 2012, she set all thoughts of sport aside to focus on being a mother first, returning to the Chinese capital to spend time with her son and her businessman husband Li Chao, a Singapore permanent resident based in Beijing.

She was desperate to make up for the time lost during Terry's early years, when she spent a total of just one month with him for the first three years of his life.

PARENTAL VOW

As a mother, I decided that I never wanted to be separated from him (Terry) again.

LI, who was only able to spend a total of one month with her son during the first three years of his life.

Initially, she feared she had missed several key milestones in his development. But he started to walk and talk only after mother and child were reunited.

"He waited for me - to walk," Li joked. "It was so late. I think God was gracious towards me and allowed me to witness that."

Free to pursue other interests, Li went to the United States to learn English at the University of California San Diego from 2013 to 2015. But she was forced to abandon her studies due to seasonal allergies.

While she is determined to master the language - she even declared that the next interview with The Straits Times would be conducted entirely in English - most of her energy is devoted to the kids at the academy.

"From day one after I retired, I always knew that I would do this one day, but it wasn't the right time yet. As a mother, I decided that I never wanted to be separated from him (Terry) again," said Li, who will now shuttle between Singapore and Beijing, mostly with her son.

She is settling back in, having bought a Lexus and a condominium unit in Tampines, and her son attends a primary school in the east when he is in Singapore for the summer and winter holidays.

Last Wednesday, after a steamboat dinner at Clarke Quay to celebrate her 36th birthday - which coincides with Singapore's National Day - she, Terry and a few others walked around the area, enjoying the festivities and observing the fireworks.

They then heard the national anthem ring out from the nearby pubs. Her son held her hands and told her to stop walking. Both of them stood to attention and sang Majulah Singapura together.

Recalling the pride she felt at that moment, she said: "I really missed Singapore. I would feel emotional every time I heard the national anthem. I remembered the feeling in the past of how proud I felt whenever the flag was raised during competitions."

The Clarke Quay experience was a flashback to the past, but having her son beside her made it even more poignant.


•Interested participants can find out more and sign up for the academy programmes at chineseswimmingclub.org.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Son brings extra fulfilment to Li's focus on academy'. Print Edition | Subscribe