For every parent who has instinctively put their kids in sports just to keep them out of trouble, University of Arizona’s associate track coach James Li shows how far that simple instinct can take a kid.
In the hot China summers during the 1970s, there wasn’t much to offer a kid for entertainment, so Li’s mother influenced him to really start running when he was a teenage boy.
However, Li started to stand out a little bit and continued to run in college at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education and went on to be one of the top 10 middle distance runners in China between 1980 and 1982.
Shortly thereafter, he began coaching in China and hasn’t stopped because running had taken hold of him ever since.
“Always trying to run and run fast through the effort, the determination,” Li said. “The mental aspect of things, in addition to physical things, is always such an attractive thing to me.”
Because Li knows that it takes extreme mental and physical strength to be a talented and fast distance runner, he looks for these traits and tries to instill them in his runners. Being halfway through this cross country season, Li’s runners are really starting to show that.
“I think the season is going well,” Li said. “More so in the women’s side, I think. The women look a lot more solid.”
Arizona’s women’s cross country team has seven to eight girls that are all running consistent and solid races, which was one of their goals going into the season. The women that went to Notre Dame this past weekend made personal records and still believe they can do better. The big hope is for the women to be knocking on the door to qualify as a team to go to nationals this year.
“Our men are a little more of a challenge right now,” Li said. “We are better than what we have shown, so hopefully, in this next race, we will make some improvement, because this last race, it was Carlos [Villarreal]’s first and, for most of our guys, it was their first time running in that high power of a race.”
Li also had this to say about why it’s difficult for freshmen to get used to college running.
“Cross country is really challenging for the freshmen men because, in a matter of months, they have to go up in distance,” Li said. “They go from 5k to 8k, and a lot of times, you just have to wait another year for them to really actually develop, because if you do too much too soon, you risk them getting injured.”
With cross country’s men’s team being a bit younger right now, the goal for the men is good improvement. The hardworking spirit that Li empowers them with will make that goal very achievable. And with Arizona’s Carlos Villarreal helping the team and being a role model for all of the new runners, Arizona should be in good hands.
Whether it be in cross country races, mid-distance track races or the Olympic Games, athletes can expect to perform well if they’re under Li. His decorated background in coaching in China, Washington State, Arizona, having been the head manager for the US Olympic team in 2008 and having gone to five Olympic Games with his own athletes proves that his love for running loves him back. Who knows, maybe coach Li can be spotted alongside an athlete in Tokyo this summer.
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