I'm no mercenary: Li Jiawei

FORMER national paddler Li Jiawei returns to her native Beijing next week, but there is still a piece of Singapore that she can call her own.

Since October 2011, a freehold condominium unit along Sixth Avenue in Bukit Timah has been her home.

It was bought with a future in her adopted country in mind, and her decision to end one of the most successful sporting careers in the Republic's history is not about to change that.

"Although I'm leaving, I don't want to cut off ties," the 31-year-old told The Straits Times. "Ideally, I'll travel quite a bit between Singapore and Beijing."

The Chinese capital is where she will reunite with her parents, businessman husband, and three-year-old Singapore-born son. And while her detractors have argued that it was always her intention to go back to China, Singapore's top-earning athlete from the Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme (MAP) insists she is no mercenary.

"I know a lot of people say that. It doesn't make me angry. In my mind, there are more Singaporeans who support me than those who don't," said Li, who has earned an estimated $1.27 million from the MAP programme since she arrived here in 1996 under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Locals who have not taken to the former world No. 3 have been vocal. Some have written to forums of this newspaper, others have voiced their opinions online, while a few have even confronted Li in person.

After competing in her first of four Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, an elderly man approached her in Toa Payoh asking why she had to come to Singapore and stifle the growth of local talent.

Another time, she was in a changing room at a boutique in Orchard Road when a woman questioned why she could not just stay in China.

"I just tell them that I like Singapore," she said. "I've never felt a need to prove that I'm Singaporean. Singapore is in my bones, in my heart."

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The blossoming of Li Jiawei
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