We caught up with 2012 U.S. Olympic alternate Anna Li to discuss coaching, judging, and her competitive career. She tells us why it’s so difficult to transition from NCAA to elite, what it was like to wait for the Olympic team announcement, and about her one-time wish to compete at 2014 Worlds.

Inside Gymnastics: What have you been up to lately?
Anna Li: I mainly coach full-time at my parents’ gym, Legacy Elite Gymnastics in Illinois. I’m also a Brevet Judge and this year I went on my first international assignment as a judge. I still live in the gym every day and travel to all the competitions even though I’m no longer a gymnast!

Inside: You’ve experienced all aspects of gymnastics—competing, coaching, and judging. Which do you like best?
Anna: I loved competing! I’d say that was the best. Being a coach is different. I work hard every day with [the] girls I coach and try to inspire and help them reach their goals— but during competition time, it’s more nerve-wracking! I have no control over it, unlike when I was the gymnast competing. I’m more nervous as a coach than I was as a gymnast. As for judging, it’s another completely different view of the sport. I enjoy it, although I would say it’s a lot different than being a gymnast and coaching.

Inside: Many collegiate athletes have attempted to make the switch to elite after their NCAA careers conclude, but very few have had the success that you’ve had. What are some of the reasons that you were able to make the transition and excel?
Anna: I think the old code back in 2004 made it a lot easier to transition from college to elite. The new code makes it very difficult because the level of gymnastics it requires. NCAA and Level 10 are usually about three “BIG” skills, where elite is asking for eight! It takes a lot of time, dedication, and discipline to reach the elite level now. Talent alone can’t get you to that level anymore. I think I was very successful because I wanted to leave the sport without any regrets. Not many supported my comeback to begin, with so I was completely self-driven and committed. I started getting back in shape at AOGC when I still had a few classes to finish up at UCLA. Once I graduated, I moved back home and my parents didn’t support me training at 22 years old! I just made my own goals and wanted to make sure I did my absolute best every day so I wouldn’t have any regrets. It was an awesome journey and I kept surprising myself, especially when I heard my name being called for National Team, Worlds, and Olympic Team.

Inside: It’s been four years since your amazing 2012 season—please tell us a little more about that!
Anna: I can’t believe it’s been four years already! Right after London, I went on the post-Olympic Tour, which was a great life experience! Traveling to 40 cities on a bus with the group is something I’ll never forget. Since then I’ve been coaching full-time at Legacy Elite in Carol Stream, IL. It’s a great feeling to give back to the girls, and help inspire them, motivate them, and do everything I can to help them reach their goals. I’m also a Brevet judge and just this past year I had my first international assignment, which was another great experience. I’ve represented Team USA as an athlete, and at Legacy Elite we have Tops, HOPES, and elite gymnasts that I help coach to represent USA, and I also have the opportunity to represent USA as a judge.

Inside: What was it like to have the Olympic team announced? What thoughts were running through your head while you waited for the announcement?
Anna: I remember every second of it! Right after the competition finished, we all had to go in a waiting room. Before walking into the room, my mom, Jiani (as my coach) gave me a hug and said “We don’t know who made it, but you did the best you could do.” I remember thinking to myself, “I know I probably won’t be named, but I REALLY want to go…”
It was the most uncomfortable few minutes in that waiting room. All of the girls who competed just sat in a circle while the coaches stood behind or on the side of the room. Some girls happy, some girls crying already, and I just sat there quiet. I knew I did everything I could and I was proud of myself regardless of if my name was called. This whole journey was beyond what I ever expected for myself and knowing I did everything I could, every minute of the way the past two years—I couldn’t have asked for more from myself.
When Marta came in and started to announce the team, when the names were called, the girls just got up and left the room because we were told we had to run out to the competition floor. I remember sitting there when Marta said “Anna Li” and I was in shock. I don’t think I got up from my seat right away because I couldn’t believe she said my name. It was so surreal and when I walked out to the competition floor, confetti was falling down and I just soaked in every second of it. All the hard work, sacrifice, dedication all paid off for THIS moment.

Inside: Can you describe the neck injury you sustained in practice as Olympic alternate? Was that injury at least partially why you chose to retire from competing?
Anna: During training, the equipment honestly wasn’t the best. But at that level, it doesn’t matter. At my age, 23 at the time, I couldn’t waste any turns. I trained very smart and got my assignments done usually on the first try, which meant I finished the assignments within the first 15-20 minutes of the rotation. But when you finish before everyone that you’re training with, you have to keep taking turns and at least work on parts. I was doing plain dismounts (full-twisting double layout) and peeled at the tap. I remember laying there on my back and feeling pain specifically in my neck. Coaches all ran towards me and I kept telling myself “I’m okay!” It was another crazy bump in the road after that; however I think if I didn’t get injured, I would have continued to train. It was in the back of my mind to train until 2014, where Worlds were in China. I wanted to finish off in the country where my parents competed for during their elite and Olympic career.

Inside: If you could make any change in gymnastics, what would it be?
Anna: I just think our sport is extremely difficult and takes an absurd amount of self-discipline. The level of gymnastics in the U.S. has increased, so the only thing I wish was different would be more people attending Worlds or Olympics. In 2012 the U.S. could have put up an A team and B team, and we probably would have taken gold and silver! But that’s just the beauty of being a part of such a strong country.

Inside: What advice do you give to gymnasts as they prepare for the Olympic Trials?
Anna: Enjoy the journey. I felt that everyone who competed at Olympic Trials in 2012 all deserved to make the team. I knew how much hard work and sacrifice everyone put into leading up to those competitions that I think it’s important to know that it’s the journey that they need to enjoy. No one can take away the hard work you put in everyday, regardless of if your name is called that night after the competition. As John Wooden said, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. It’s about knowing you did your absolute best to finish without regrets.”

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Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com