China’s 2011 IAAF World Championships Discus gold medallist Li Yanfeng made a discrete return to big time competition at the Chinese National Games earlier this month and showed that she is capable of being a medal contender at major championships again after finishing second to her compatriot Tan Jian.
Apart from a low-key outing at the Heilongjiang Provincial Championships, which were conveniently in her home town of Suihua City and where she won with a relatively modest effort of 60.12m on 4 August, she had not competed since the end of last season due to ong-term back problems from a herniated disc.
She finally underwent surgery in March and, after returning to training in May, Li decided she was not in shape to defend her global crown in Moscow last month but still decided to put in an appearance at China’s most prestigious domestic competition.
It was a bitter-sweet result in Shenyang for Li, who reached 63.91m and only lost by 20cm to Tan, who had finished sixth at both of the last two World Championships.
On one hand, it proved that Li’s back problems are, if you will excuse the pun, effectively behind her. On the other, she was unable to successfully defend the National Games title she won at the last edition in 2009 and succumbed to only her fourth head-to-head loss to Tan in no less than 43 encounters in a rivalry that stretches back almost a decade.
“Having to settle for the silver medal is not easy for me. Nevertheless, I am proud of myself and if it had not been for the injury, I don’t think that the result would have been the same," reflected the 34-year-old Li.
"The injury really affected me a lot. I only started to build up for these Games in May. I want to thank all the doctors that have helped me," she added.
Her coach, Zhang Jinglong, was also a happy man after seeing his athlete perform so well after her problems of the last year.
"I was still surprised and I have to admire the way Li trained (after the surgery) it showed her perseverance; she was consistently throwing around 60 metres in training during August and while I believed that she could throw better in competition, this was a good result. She insisted on doing much more intense training than I thought was possible,” said her mentor.
However, as Zhang admitted to local reporters before the Games, the pair came to the conclusion after her outing at the Heilongjiang Provincial Championships that she wasn’t fit enough to be a medal contender in Moscow. They decided, as he put it, to avoid the potential embarrassment of perhaps not even making the final.
Rather than travel ill-prepared to Moscow, Li decided to prove a point in Shenyang with one more month’s training under her belt.
“Some people had asked me whether this (the Chinese National Games) was going to be the last competition of my career but I always said no.
“I have no plans to retire and this shows that I am back. I will certainly continue competing until the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio,” added Li, whose left leg is currently three centimetres shorter than her right owing to her back injury.
Her statement means that, barring injury, she should be one of China’s big hopes for a medal when Beijing stages the next IAAF World Championships in 2015.
China will certainly be looking for a better return from its athletes than in Moscow, where they failed to achieve a gold medal for the first time since 2005.
However, even if she has ambitions of getting back on the podium in 2015 and 2016, she may not be competing much, if at all, next year.
She will get married on 6 October to a fencer: “and we definitely will consider having children immediately after getting married. After all, I'm getting old," she jokingly revealed to reporters in Shenyang.
However, like good wine and despite the current prevalence of the younger generation of female discus throwers with no less than 12 of this year’s top 20 under the age of 26, including Croatia’s Olympic and World champion Sandra Perkovic, discus throwers tend to mature with age.
Li will be 36 by the time of the next World Championships but there have been medallists and even winners of the event in their 40s.
Regardless of whether she does have a baby break next year, Li is certainly not too old to contemplate regaining the World title and, perhaps, adding her name to the list of World champions who have triumphed after becoming mothers.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF