In 2002, James Li joined the Wildcat track and field coaching staff to direct the distance runners and men's and women's cross country programs. He came 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, 50 All-America honors and nine national championships.
During the 2009 cross country season, Li oversaw Mohamud Ige put in perhaps the comeback story of the year after a disappointing 2008 campaign. After a rare injury early in the season, Ige bounced back to earn All-America honors at the NCAA Championships with his 38th-place overall finish. At the NCAA West Regionals, Ige shocked many on his way to a ninth-place, all-region performance. Also during the 2009 cross country season, he guided the Arizona women's squad to qualify for their first NCAA Championships as a team since 2001.
On the track in 2010, he guided redshirt freshman Abdi Hassan to a record-setting performance in the 1,500 meters with his time of 3:42.04 at the NCAA West Regional Championships. Hassan finished fourth and earned a spot at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Behind Li's leadership, the Arizona men's cross country team won the NCAA West Regional Championships and earned a top-four national ranking in 2005. The women's team would go on to their first NCAA Championship appearance in eight years during the 2009 campaign and finished 11th overall at the 2010 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
As the distance coach at Arizona, Li is credited for the success of former UA distance standout Robert Cheseret. While running for the Wildcats, Cheseret broke three school records and won two NCAA Championship titles in outdoor track and field. 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 Conference 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 WSU 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 nine out of the past ten 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. 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).
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 Li's 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, most recently as the head manager for the men of Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
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. Li 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.