At first impression, Tao Li comes across merely as a spunky, affable teenager. However, the 2007 Sportswoman of the Year has a dedication and determination well beyond her years. In the pool, the ‘typical teen’ transforms into a ferocious competitor, capable of taking on the best in Asia as she proved in no uncertain terms at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.
Sixteen year-old Tao Li blocked a China-Japan sweep of medals in the women’s event at the Asian Games when she won the gold in the 50-metre butterfly and a bronze in the 100-metre fly. Not only did Tao Li confound expectations for the 50-metre fly event, she defeated double-gold medalist Xu Yanwei from China and set a new National record of 26.73 seconds to do it.
Earlier in 2006, she won for our first gold medal at the 7th Annual Asia Swimming Championships in the 50-metre fly as well. She broke the 27-second mark for the first time and immediately began concentrating on bettering her time ahead of the Asian Games. She also claimed four gold medals at the Hong Kong Invitational in 2006.
Tao Li’s ability to outperform expectations was apparent from her debut at the 2005 South East Asian Games. She claimed the gold in the 200-metre backstroke, setting a new National record and upsetting the event’s reigning champion from Thailand. As she stood on the podium, singing Majulah Singapura, the then 15-year-old wept tears of joy.
Currently tied for 11th in the world rankings for the 50-metre butterfly, Tao Li is one of only three Asian swimmers in the top 15. The fact that she is on average five to 10 years younger than her leading world competitors suggests that even greater achievements lie ahead for her.
There is no doubt that Tao Li will achieve the goals she sets for herself. In a very short period of time, she overcame the difficulties of adjusting to a new life and a new culture in Singapore. She tackled the challenges of our rigorous local school system. She advanced quickly in swimming because she never allowed herself to be distracted from her purpose. She is living proof that nothing is impossible if an athlete has a strong heart and focused mind.