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Crowd bids Aurora gymnast Anna Li bon voyage to Olympics

Olympian AnnLi shown during her sendoff from Aurorearlier this month was removed as replacement gymnast due neck injury received fall

Olympian Anna Li, shown during her sendoff from Aurora earlier this month, was removed as a replacement gymnast due to a neck injury received in a fall at practice.. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 10, 2012 9:50AM

It was an Olympic-sized sendoff for Aurora gymnast Anna Li as hundreds of supporters Monday afternoon gathered to congratulate the Team USA alternate.

American flags were waved, and red, white and blue balloons filled the Eola Community Center where politicians, future Olympic hopefuls, cheerleaders and fans whooped and hollered, shouting “U.S.A!”

“I am so excited to be here right now,” Li said of the sendoff. “There is confetti everywhere, and cheers with my name in them. I could never have imagined this day. It feels like I’m home right now.”

Li was joined by her parents, 1984 Chinese Olympic medalists Yuejiu Li and Jiani Wu. Her grandparents, younger sister and local teammates were also on hand.

Sydney Pavlek, 7, who trains with Li, said the whole situation was “awesome.” Like Pavlek, Li spent countless hours training with her parents and at Legacy Elite Gymnastics to become a Level 10 and Elite gymnast.

“(Having Li around) gives the girls something to strive for and someone to look up to,” said Sydney’s mother, Natalie Pavlek of Yorkville. “It’s unbelievable.”

And so is Li’s journey to Olympic fame.

Taller than most gymnasts, and eight years older than her youngest teammate, this Waubonsie Valley High School graduate is headed to London with the hopes that if she’s called upon, she’ll be ready to help Team USA win gold.

The other seven members of the team headed to London are between 15 and 18 years old, to put in perspective just how rare it is for a 23-year-old like Li to have this opportunity.

“I wanted to finish without any regret. I didn’t want to give up until I knew I had given it my all,” she told the crowd. “I did everything I could … I became the best that I was capable of being.”

Li left Aurora to study history at UCLA, where she rose to the top as a full-ride scholarship athlete. After graduation, she dipped her toes into the Hollywood scene, doing stunt work. Her Olympic dream, however, felt like it had been left unfulfilled, she said.

“Believe in yourself; that’s the most important thing,” Li said. “It’s never too late to believe in your dreams.”

So after graduation, Li called her parents, told them what she wanted to accomplish, and was eventually met with their support.

“(Because of her age) I didn’t think she would make it that far,” her mother said. “She really amazes us. We’re really proud of her.”

Li was also presented an Aurora Hometown Hero award by the city’s mayor, Tom Weisner.

“She defied all odds out against her. We’re proud to call (the Li family) an Aurora family,” Weisner said. “Through hard work and determination, dreams really can come true.”

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