After winning at two indoor meetings during a brief sojourn in Europe last week, in Poland and France, Chinese long jumper Li Jinzhe returned to Beijing on Monday (9).
Before continuing his preparations for the 2015 IAAF World Championships this summer, in the wake of him flying out to an Asian-leading indoor mark of 8.10m in the French town of Mondeville on Saturday, the 25-year-old Beijing native will first enjoy some days off to celebrate the Spring Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday that gives people the opportunity to review the past year and make resolutions for the new one.
Looking back on the past year, the usually gregarious Li – known for his spiky hair and sporting gloves or arm accessories while competing – admits he is filled with mixed feelings, combining both joy and regret.
He leapt 8.47m last June to finally make the national record his own, an effort that was only one centimetre shy of the Asian record set by Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Salman Al Khuwalidi in 2006.
He was close to winning the gold medal at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, last March before Brazil’s Mauro Da Silva turned the tables in the last round. But a silver was also the best result ever achieved by a Chinese long jumper on the international stage.
Although missing the gold medal in Sopot was a disappointment for Li, his biggest regret of 2014 was failing to win the Diamond Race.
After winning at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco and finishing third in Birmingham and Lausanne, Li stood a strong chance to win the Diamond Race at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels but he had four fouls and only finished fifth with a relatively modest 8.01m.
“I really wanted to be the first Asian athlete to win the Diamond Race but, maybe, I thought too much about it during the competition. I just failed,” lamented Li.
Later, Li realised that he also missed a chance of probably allowing one more Chinese long jumper perform in front of his friends and family on home soil at the IAAF World Championships as 2014 Diamond Race winners can get a wild card to compete in Beijing.
Li could have earned one extra ticket for his country since four other Chinese athletes jumped the 8.10m IAAF World Championships entry standard, or better, in 2014.
“I jumped over eight metres more than 30 times in 2014, which demonstrates my stability, so qualifying for the World Championships is not a problem for me,” Li said.
“But this time I will not think too much about the result when I am in Beijng for the Worlds. I will just take the competition as it comes and just try my best.”
Unlike Li, who is reluctant to talk about his expectations in Beijing, his coach Randy Huntington is blunt about his ambition.
“The expectation is that he wins in Beijing. That's what we are aiming for,” said the US coach who used to guide the world record-holder Mike Powell.
“But expectation is one thing and reality is another. A lot of things can get in the way of that, including injury and improper training. We are trying to eliminate all of those things. Everything we are doing is pointing towards him being top of the podium, that's why I am here.”
Invited by the Chinese Athletics Association, Huntington started to work as the coach of the national team in November 2013. Although he has had to sometimes cope with the cultural differences in training, he has been working hard to help Li to release his full potential.
“It is not an easy thing when you think you are pretty good already and someone tells you, 'By the way, you have some flaws we need to take care of if you want to be No.1 of the world',” said Huntington.
“However, he is an incredible competitor. His strength is his desire to compete. We call it an easy gamer.”
Home improvement help
In Huntington’s mind, Li still has room to improve, with the World Championships now looming on the horizon.
“He just needs to improve his last three steps. There are some technique issues which caused him a lot of fouls in 2014,” added Huntington.
“Li has got the capability. He has got the speed and elastic strength to jump 8.70m. He could do it but whether he does do it, or not, is another question. Mike Powell had it (question marks) until the day he did it.”
It will be the third time for Li to compete at the World Championships and, frankly, his previous two experiences were not too successful.
In 2009, a few days short of his 20th birthday, Li was 13th in qualifying with 8.01m and failed to make it to the final in Berlin.
Two years ago, in Moscow, he made the final but only finished 12th at 7.86m following an accidental toe injury right before the competition.
“I was doing physical exercise but carelessly dropped the bar of the dumbbell on my right foot, which caused the injury. I think it was a mistake that even a kindergarten kid would not make,” said Li, who is still mildly embarrassed when talking about the accident.
“This year the World Championship is the most important thing for me. And I will make sure I am 100 percent ready for the competition. This time I will leave no regrets behind.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF