Head cross country coach and associate head track and field coach Dr. James Li enters his 11th season as a member of the Arizona staff, directing the middle distance and distance runners and men's and women's cross country programs. He came to Tucson from Washington State University, where he worked with the Cougar track and field and cross country programs for a combined total of 13 years. During his collegiate coaching career, Li has coached numerous individual student-athletes and relay teams to more than 30 conference championships, 65 All-America honors and 12 national championships.
During the 2011 cross country season, Li led Lawi Lalang to arguably one of the best individual seasons in collegiate history. Prior to the 2011 season, Lalang had no cross country experience, however, Lalang managed to go undefeated in six races on the year. His average margin of victory was 22.5 seconds. At the NCAA Championships, Lalang took the lead after 4K and essentially ran the rest of the race by himself, winning with a 10K time 28:44.1, missing the course record by only three seconds. He was UA's first NCAA Cross Country Champion since Martin Keino in 1994, the third champion overall. Lalang won the Roy Griak and Wisconsin adidas Invitationals, setting course records at both. He also set a course record at the Pac-12 Championship, claiming that crown as well. Lalang was named U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches' Association (USTFCCCA) West Region Athlete of the Year. He was also named the USTFCCCA National Men's Athlete of the Year, the Pac-12 Athlete of the Year and Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year.
The women's cross country squad had another strong year, taking fifth place at the Pac-12 Championships and 19th place at the NCAA Championships. Jen Bergman earned All-Pac-12 honors and All-America honors for her individual performances. She finished in 26th place and was the first Wildcat to earn All-America accolades since Tara Chaplin in 2001.
For the 2012 indoor track and field season, Li guided Lalang and Stephen Sambu to All-America honors in the 3K and 5K. The pair also holds the two best times in collegiate history in the 5,000-meter race. At the Millrose Games in New York, Lalang set the collegiate and school record in the 5K. Lalang clocked a time of 13:08.28, beating Galen Rupp's NCAA record of 13:18.12, set in 2009. Sambu holds the No. 2 collegiate time ever, clocking a time 13:13.74. At the NCAA Indoor Championships, Lalang finished in first place and Sambu finished in third place in the 5K. Lalang also claimed the title in the 3K, with Sambu taking sixth place. The pair earned All-America honors in both events. On the women's side, Elvin Kibet claimed the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) title in the 5K and clocked the second-fastest time in UA history. Kibet also earned All-America honors in the 5K at the NCAA Indoor Championships, taking sixth place. At the end of the season, Li was named the USTFCCCA West Region Men's Assistant Coach of the Year while Lalang was selected as the USTFCCCA National Men's Track Athlete of the Year.
The success of Li's distance runners continued during the outdoor season with seven athletes claiming 11 All-Pac-12 honors and four athletes earning seven All-America certificates. At the Pac-12 Championships, Lalang won the Pac-12 title in the 1,500-meter race and earned a third place in the 5K. Sambu claimed his second-straight conference title in the 10,000-meter race; he also earned his second-straight runner-up finish in the 5K. Kibet earned fourth-place finishes in the 5K and 10K at the Pac-12 Championships. Bergman took eighth place in the 5K and earned a runner-up finish in the 10,000-meter race, good for all-conference honors in both events. As freshman, Kenji Bierig and Clea Formaz both earned All-Pac-12 accolades in the men's and women's steeplechase, with Bierig taking seventh place and Formaz taking eighth. In the 800-meter race, James Eichberger's fourth-place finish was good for All-Pac-12 accolades.
At the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Lalang earned a third-place finish in the 5,000 meters, good for first-team All-America honors. He claimed second-team All-America accolades in the 1,500 meters after an 11th-place finish. Sambu earned a runner-up finish in the 10K and a fifth-place finish in the 5K, claiming first-team All-America honors in both. Kibet finished in seventh place in the 10,000 meters, claiming first-team All-America accolades in the event. Kibet also earned second-team All-America honors in the 5K, taking 11th place. Bergman finished in 12th place in the 10,000 meters, good for second-team All-America accolades. Eichberger earned second-team All-America honors in the 800 meters, taking 15th place overall.
Li led the women's cross country team to their first NCAA Championship appearance in eight years during the 2009 campaign and an 11th-place finish at the 2010 NCAA Cross Country Championships. The squad earned a runner-up finish at the Pac-10 Championships with four runners earning All-Pac-10 accolades.
On the men's side in 2010, Sambu was a cross country All-American, the NCAA West Region runner-up and earned a fifth-place finish at the Pac-10 Championships. For his efforts, Sambu was named the 2010 Pac-10 Athlete of the Year and Newcomer of the Year. Li was named the Pac-10 Women's Coach of the Year.
On the track in 2011, Li's student-athletes won three Pac-10 Outdoor titles, two MPSF Indoor titles, earned 10 All-America accolades and collected 12 All-Pac-10 honors. Top performances included a bronze finish in the 10,000 meters by Bergman at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and a 1-2 sweep by Lalang and Sambu in the 5,000 meters at the Pac-10 Outdoor Championships. Maggie Callahan won the Pac-10 Outdoor title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and Hannah Moen set a-then school record in the event at the NCAA Prelims with her time of 10:10.61.
Sambu was named the Pac-10 Men's Newcomer of the Year for his bronze finish at the NCAA Outdoor 10,000 meters and a win in the same race at the Pac-10 Outdoor Championships. On the season, he collected two All-America honors and two All-Pac-10 certificates. He also set school records in the 5,000 meters indoors (13:28.48) and the 10,000 meters outdoors (27:28.64).
Li is also credited with the success of former UA distance standout Robert Cheseret. While running for the Wildcats, Cheseret broke three school records and won two NCAA Outdoor Championship titles. Cheseret also won 10 Pac-10 individual titles in track and cross country, the most Pac-10 distance titles won by one runner in conference history. He was named the Pac-10 Athlete of the Year twice in cross country and three times in outdoor track and field.
Li first joined the Washington State University men's track and field coaching staff in 1985 as a graduate assistant. Under the guidance of head coach John Chaplin, he primarily worked with distance runners. Li rejoined the Washington State men's staff in 1994 and began coaching the men's and women's distance runners in 1995 when the Cougars combined their track and field and cross country programs. Li was named the Cougars' head cross country coach in 1998.
While at Washington State University, Li recruited and coached distance great Bernard Lagat. Behind Li's guidance, Lagat won four NCAA Championship titles and was named the NCAA Division I National Indoor Runner of the Year and the Pac-10 Runner of the Year in 1999. Li continues to coach Lagat during his post-collegiate years and he was ranked among the top four runners in the world in the 1,500 meters 10 out of the past 11 years. Lagat holds national records in the 1,500 meters in two countries (Kenya and the U.S.) and is the second-fastest all-time runner in the world over the distance. He also holds the American records in the indoor mile and the 3,000 meters and in the outdoor 5,000 meters.
Lagat won a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2007, Lagat became the first man to win gold medals in both the 1,500 meters and the 5,000 meters at an IAAF World Championships (Osaka, Japan). He earned a silver finish in the 5,000 meters at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
In 2012, Lagat set the American indoor record in the 5,000-meter race, clocking a time of 13:07.15 and beating the previous record by more than four seconds. Lagat also won the gold medal at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in the 3,000-meter race, his second-straight gold medal in the event. Outdoors, Lagat took second place at the U.S. Olympic Trials, punching his ticket to London in the 5K. Lagat competed in his fourth Olympiad, earning a fourth-place finish in the final of the 5,000-meter race.
In 1990, Li became the head men's track and field coach at Minnesota State University at Mankato (formerly Mankato State University). During his four years at Mankato, Li coached the sprinters, jumpers and throwers. He directed the Mavericks to top-three finishes at the North Central Conference Championships in each of the indoor and outdoor seasons from 1992 to 1994. Li's squads also had multiple top-Ten finishes at NCAA Division II Indoor, Outdoor and Cross Country National Championships during his tenure.
Over the years, Li has spoken and presented at numerous local, national and international coaches' clinics and educational programs. In 2006, Li earned the "Chief Coach Certificate," the highest designation under the IAAF Coaches' Education Program.
Li has also been selected as a staff member to a number of U.S. National Teams and as the head manager for the men of Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Most recently, he was named the head men's coach for Team USA at the 2011 World University Games where Wildcats Brigetta Barrett, Edgar Rivera-Morales and Luis Rivera-Morales competed for their countries. He paced the squad to four medals during the event: one gold, one silver and two bronze. In total, Team USA brought nine medals home from China. The squads finished fifth in the medal count. Li was a middle distance runner during his youth and collegiate years and at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1982. He was a top Chinese junior runner in the late 1970s and won the Chinese Collegiate 800-meter title in 1979. Li was among the top-10 middle distance runners in China from 1980 to 1982. He began his coaching career at Sichuan Sports Technique Institute and he was a provincial team coach (Sichuan Province) from 1983 to 1985 where he coached men's middle and distance runners.
Li was born in Chengdu, China and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in May of 1998. He received a master's degree in biomechanics from Washington State University in 1987 and a doctorate in educational athletic administration in 1993. Li and his wife, Jean, have two sons, Allen and Anthony.