The crowd roared as the swimmers were told to take their marks at the 2017 Big Ten Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in West Lafayette, Indiana. The scream of the beep sounded, signaling the athletes to leap from their starting blocks, and soon they plummeted into the water, each stroke propelling them toward the finish line.
The swimmers’ thoughts drowned out the cheers as they kept their heads down, eyes locked on the bottom of the pool, thinking of nothing but victory. Suddenly, thrusting her hands into the touch pad, junior Liz Li had won the 50-yard freestyle — again.
Li arrived at Ohio State to begin her first semester in the fall of 2014, and has been mostly successful ever since. However, her journey began long before traveling to America to compete with the Buckeyes.
Li is originally from Shenyang, China, where she was first taught to swim at 6 years old by someone very important to her.
“My dad brought me to a recreational swimming pool and taught me how to swim one day,” Li said. “Actually, he taught me breaststroke first, which is the stroke that I’m really bad at now, which is funny.”
Soon after, Li’s father sent her to a more official swimming club in her hometown, where her current Chinese coach selected her for her team. The coach felt that Li had good body composition and great potential, so she convinced Li’s parents to give it a shot, Li said.
“Initially, my parents just wanted me to do some sport or activity because I was a really unhealthy kid and got sick a lot. So, my parents thought, ‘Why not just do something to become healthier,’” Li said. “It was summer break, so swimming was a good activity to do, and I continually liked to swim with my Chinese coach.”
A short while after Li joined the team, she was sent to the provincial team because she was becoming more and more advanced. In China, they don’t necessarily have club teams or college teams. Instead, they have teams for a specific city or province, Li said.
Based on Li’s rapidly advancing skill set, her coach thought the young swimmer had a chance to travel and compete in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic trials. Though Li was nervous, she knew that China didn’t have many advanced sprinters at the time. She knew her coach was confident in her, so she took the plunge. It paid off.
“I made the Chinese national team for the 2008 Olympic Games, and I was the youngest athlete from my country to compete at the time, at the age of 14. I got 12th place for my 50-yard freestyle, and I was really happy about that,” Li said.
The following year, Li was at her peak level. She was still young and in high school, but her environment was taking a toll on her happiness. She was becoming very depressed and unhappy, Li said.
“I talked to my parents and said, ‘Can I just try another experience? I want to study abroad and simply see another language and another part of the world, and I think that can make me happier,’” Li said. “At first my parents were kind of hesitant to let me go since they wouldn’t be able to see me all the time, but finally they said, ‘OK.’”
With her parents’ blessing, Li began to research schools in the United States, and the processes for applying to them. At the time, the swimmer barely spoke a word of English, driving her to initially enroll at an English language services program. They decided upon Ohio Dominican University in April of 2013.
“When I first came here … it was a culture shock because in America there are not a lot of people, but in China you can see people everywhere, it’s so crowded,” Li said. “I was so shocked, calling my mom and telling her that I wanted to go back home and that I was so lonely.”
However, Li’s mother told her not to give up, and she didn’t. Li completed her language program and was originally planning to go to the University of Dayton. However, Li made friends at OSU who brought her to campus to show her around.
Li knew instantly, especially after visiting the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion, that this is where she wanted to be.
Soon after, Li emailed OSU women’s swimming coach, Bill Dorenkott, to discuss the possibility of joining the team. Not long after they were setting up times for Li to complete the necessary steps to begin her career at OSU in the fall of 2014.
“The college competition is so much fun for me, and it’s totally a different experience. I love the atmosphere and the culture,” Li said. “In the culture I’m from, we are just very serious about the competitions and the meets, and everybody is not as happy, I would say. Here, we’re also focused, but it’s more fun. Especially within our team. We create that atmosphere and try to inspire each other to go fast. It’s not only for yourself, but for the team.”
Li has always been a hard-working team player, according to her teammates.
“She’s a genuine competitor, and I like to say she’s programmed to win,” senior Taylor Vargo said. “She gives her best all the time, and you can’t really ask for any more from someone.”
Throughout her collegiate career competing with the Buckeyes, Li has become a highly decorated athlete. She has competed in the Big Ten championships all three years, taking home two Big Ten titles her sophomore and junior year in the 50-yard freestyle, breaking her own record the second time around. She also won the 100-yard butterfly in 2016 and 100-yard freestyle in 2017 by setting a new school record.
Additionally, the experienced swimmer was named Big Ten Swimmer of the Week twice throughout her career, and competed in the NCAA championships each year. Throughout the NCAAs, Li has earned a total of eight All-American titles, and set school and personal records. The competitions are not always the most important part of her college career, though, Li said.
“Outside of the swimming outcomes and Big Ten championships, I feel like the most important thing is being a swimmer at Ohio State,” she said. “It’s not only about being elite swimmers. Coach Bill and coach Jordan (Wolfrum) also helped me to learn how to be an elite person, and that is such a big accomplishment to me.”
Dorenkott has taken pride in coaching Li, and has enjoyed experiencing her victory alongside her.
“She’s an amazing young lady. She’s a long way from home, and we’re pretty fortunate that she decided to come to Ohio State,” Dorenkott said. “She’s a world-class competitor, and she’s got a lot of background prior to coming here. She’s a humble kid, a very hard worker and she’s very deserving of the success she’s had. I love coaching her.”
While Li has thoroughly enjoyed and is forever grateful for her experiences here, she is excited to return to her hometown after a two-month training trip with her Chinese national team in Los Angeles upon graduating this spring.
“Since I’ve been in America for three or four years now, I kind of miss training with my Chinese teammates too. It’s just a totally different culture, but I would say I really want to bring the positive things I learned from here to impact my Chinese team,” Li said. “I hope I can contribute some of my experiences to my team when I return to make them better also.”
Li concluded her final season with the Buckeyes this past March, and will be graduating in the spring of this year. Upon graduation, Li will go home to China after her training trip to compete in the Chinese National Games in September.
“I wouldn’t say I want to be the champion, but you know, that is kind of my desire and my ultimate goal,” Li said.