YOG helped Isabelle Li feel rooted to nation

Former national paddler Isabelle Li on holiday in China in Jan 2020.
Former national paddler Isabelle Li on holiday in China in Jan 2020.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ISABELLE LI

For two years between 2008 and 2010, all former national paddler Isabelle Li thought about when she woke up every day was the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

"All my academics, training and competitions were planned with the YOG in mind. I was really obsessed with it. I spent every moment thinking about the Games and how to become a better player," Li, 25, told The Sunday Times.

After travelling across four continents to compete in more than 20 tournaments, her focus and hard work paid off. The teenager became one of Singapore's star performers at the inaugural edition, going all the way to the final in the girls' singles.

She eventually settled for the silver medal after a 4-0 loss to Chinese top seed Gu Yuting.

But what was most memorable for Li was the standing ovation the 5,000-strong crowd in the Singapore Indoor Stadium gave her after the match.

Li said: "People usually say that silver medallists are less happy than bronze medallists because you lost the final game. But it was quite different for me.

"When I saw my last shot hit the net, yes I was disappointed but… one by one, the people in the crowd got to their feet and started cheering for me like I'd won the game, even though I didn't.

"I realised there's beauty in defeat and I found family in the crowd because who else would cheer for you in the midst of defeat?

"The lesson I had there was that failure is never final and there's so much more ahead."


Carrying this sentiment with her, Li went on to compete in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 SEA Games, bagging a total of two team golds and two singles silvers.

But a SEA Games singles gold proved elusive and, in 2015, she injured her knee, resulting in a group-stage exit on home ground.

As she recovered from the injury, Li focused on her studies and, during that time, realised that she wanted to pursue other things.

Her final outing in national colours was the 2016 World Team Championships in Selangor.

Li said the injury was a huge disappointment, and "not going as far as I'd wished in the 2015 SEA Games made it harder" to retire as she "wanted to end on a good note".

"I didn't want to make it seem like I was quitting on something but I was at peace with myself because I knew I was moving on instead of quitting," said Li, who enrolled in Yale-National University of Singapore College to study liberal arts after the 2015 Games.


She says her YOG experience will always remain close to her heart.

"It helped me feel rooted to Singapore and my identity as a Singaporean became stronger," she said.

"Little things like that motivate me to want to contribute to my community and society, so the YOG had a greater impact than just within table tennis."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline 'YOG helped Li feel rooted to nation'. Subscribe