A proven formula for success in gymnastics is to learn and master something new and unusual. A 24-year-old with an infectious grin did just that at the 1981 World Championships in Moscow. Li Yuejiu performed a routine with an original straddled 1-3/4 side somi roll-out—looking a bit like a flying wagon wheel—to become China's first world champion on floor exercise.
Li's team won the bronze at that competition, but at the 1983 World Championships in Budapest, he helped China upset the favored Soviet Union to capture its first world team gold.
Born July 4, 1957, in Liaoning Province, Li was not the prototypical gymnast for his time. Nicknamed "Thunder Thighs" because of his powerful legs, Li was actually recruited as a weightlifter. But the short, stocky Li loved gymnastics, which he had discovered as a young boy while watching the tumbling acrobats in a Beijing opera group.
Once Li made the Chinese national team, the awards followed. At the 1980 World Cup in Toronto, Li proved that he was more than just a powerful tumbler. He won a silver medal on floor exercise, but he also took the gold on parallel bars. Li's final competition was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he helped China win the silver medal.
After retiring from competition, Li stayed heavily involved in gymnastics as a coach. He found jobs first in Canada and then Las Vegas, where in 1986 he married fellow '84 Olympian Wu Jiani. The couple had two daughters, Anna and Andrea, after which the family eventually settled in Chicago.
After the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where the Chinese men and women placed fifth and seventh, respectively, Li was invited back to China. He was asked to join a rebuilding effort for the 2008 Beijing Games, so he left his wife and kids and moved back to his homeland. It was time well spent; China won the Olympic team golds for both men and women.
After returning to the U.S., Li and his wife groomed oldest daughter Anna to berths on the U.S. national team and as an alternate for the 2012 Olympics. Today the Li family runs Legacy Elite Gymnastics in Carol Stream, Ill.