Star Gymnast From China to Join Fullerton's Team

Times Staff Writer

Li Xiao Ping, a member of the gymnastics team that won a silver medal for the People's Republic of China in the 1984 Olympics, will join the Cal State Fullerton gymnastics squad, becoming the first Chinese gymnast to compete for an American university, school officials announced Monday.

Robert Cowan, men's program director for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, the governing body of amateur gymnastics in the United States, said the announcement was an accomplishment for national collegiate gymnastics and for Cal State Fullerton Coach Dick Wolfe.

"It's quite a statement for his program and for our country," Cowan said. "His presence here will do a lot for the sport in this country."

Said Rusty Mitchell, University of New Mexico gymnastics coach and past vice president of the federation: "I've been involved on the collegiate scene since 1959, and I can guarantee you there's never been a Chinese gymnast competing on the college level."

In Peking, officials with the Chinese Sports Federation said they were unaware that Li was attending Cal State Fullerton. However, a number of leading Chinese sports figures are competing in intercollegiate competition in the United States and elsewhere, they said.

Wolfe said Li's presence will catapult the Cal State Fullerton Titans into the upper echelon of NCAA men's gymnastics. Known in international gymnastic circles as the "Great Traveler" for his graceful movements on the pommel horse, Li will compete for the first time as a Titan in the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Mixed Pairs Collegiate National Championships in Houston on Dec. 13. His partner in that competition will be Cal State Fullerton gymnast Tami Elliott.

Team Meet

Li's first appearance in a team meet will be Jan. 10 in the Davis Invitational Tournament at the University of California at Davis.

Li, 24, has attended classes at Cal State Fullerton this semester, awaiting word from the NCAA regarding his eligibility to compete. That word came late last week and was announced by Cal State officials Monday.

Li is a seven-year veteran of the Chinese national team and has received a perfect score of 10 on the pommel horse five times in international competition and scores of at least 9.8 on every other event. He has a career-best all-around score of 58.60. Jon Louis of Stanford won the 1986 NCAA all-around championship with a score of 57.60.

"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me as a coach," Wolfe said. "There's nothing else that compares."

The announcement Monday ends an eight-month process of correspondence and red tape that began when an acquaintance of Wolfe's casually asked him if he would be interested in recruiting a gymnast from China. Lon Wang, a graduate student from China who was living with the family of former Fullerton basketball coach Alex Omalev, asked Wolfe if he would offer a full athletic scholarship to such a gymnast.

"I said, 'Yes,' but I didn't take it seriously at first," Wolfe said. "About a month went by when I got a call from a Chinese coach. I was sitting back with my feet up on my desk, reading the paper. He said, 'Are you serious with your recruitment of Li Xiao Ping?' I immediately sat straight up and became very alert."

Wolfe said he spent much of the next few months meeting with Fullerton administrators and communicating by phone and mail with officials in China. "It took more red tape than you can imagine," he said.

Once the wheels of bureaucracy were in motion and the prospect of Li's coming to Fullerton looked more realistic, Wolfe began to realize the obligations that came with global recruiting.

'Great Responsibility'

"I felt a great responsibility," he said. "Here's a young man I'm bringing in from another culture and taking away from his home and family. I wasn't really sure what I was getting myself into or what I was getting him into."

Li's class load at Fullerton this semester includes four units of English as a second language and three of English writing for foreign students. He has also enrolled in ballet and athletic conditioning classes and receives a unit of credit for his participation in gymnastics.

Under NCAA rules pertaining to the age of athletes, Li will be eligible for only one year. Wolfe said Li will be an assistant coach at Fullerton after competing. But Wolfe said one season is all that Li will need to turn Cal State Fullerton into a national gymnastics power. The Titans finished eighth in the nation in 1976 and 1978, 10th in 1981 and ninth in 1985.

"What we've lacked is that one gun," Wolfe said. "The years we've finished in the top 10 nationally, we did it without a star."

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