Minnesota gymnast Sunisa Lee’s Olympic quest delayed a year

Published 12:52 pm Thursday, April 2, 2020

ST. PAUL — For the last 10 years, almost everything Sunisa Lee has done has been in the name of 2020.

Spending up to eight hours a day at the gym.

Taking classes online so that she has the flexibility to spend long hours at the gym.

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Giving up family vacations and a social life.

For the last decade, the St. Paul gymnast has been chasing a dream that comes into being just once every four years — except now, she’ll have to wait one more year.

Lee is trying to make the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team. She wants to go to Tokyo and win gold.

She had planned to do it this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. Organizers postponed the games until 2021.

“I’m disappointed,” Lee told Minnesota Public Radio News of the decision, though she agrees it was for the best.

But while the timeline changes, the goal does not.

Lee wants to make the Olympic team not only for herself, but also for her dad. John Lee has been her biggest supporter since Day 1.

“This dream has been me and my dad’s for the longest time,” she said.

It would be especially meaningful now, considering John Lee suffered a paralyzing injury last summer, just before Sunisa Lee was to leave for nationals. She almost skipped it to be with her dad.

But she didn’t — and ended up showing the world her fortitude and talent. She placed second behind Simone Biles at nationals in August, and was part of the world championship-winning team in October. There, she won an individual silver on floor and a bronze on uneven bars.

But for all that, her path to the games is not assured — nor will it be easy. It never was, given the depth in U.S. gymnastics right now. But it’s further complicated by the fact that the American squad will comprise just four females — down from five at the 2016 games — though the United States could earn the ability to send two more gymnasts to compete in the individual events, separate from the team.

She’s one of two Minnesotans in contention for the team — her friend Grace McCallum of Isanti is the other. If either of them make the cut, they would be the first Minnesotans on the women’s team in more than three decades.

And then there’s this: Lee would also make history as the first Hmong American to represent the United States at an Olympic games.

For Lee, the pressure is on — but it can also be overwhelming at times, especially when you consider that she’s only 17. So much of the world is already focused on her.

“I’m just nervous that if I don’t make the team, people are going to hate on me,” she said. Of people making negative comments on social media, Lee said: “It’s very bad for my mental health.”

‘Nobody sees the hard work’

In person, Lee is shy and reserved. But get her around close friends and family, and she’ll indulge in some silliness, like funny selfies or teasing her coaches’ tastes in music — sometimes even going ahead and changing the tunes at the gym on her own. Still, she prefers to keep a low profile — so much so that she avoids eating lunch in the school cafeteria. Instead, she usually takes meals with one of her teachers at South St. Paul High School, who also happens to coach at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada where she trains.

But one thing Lee isn’t shy about sharing are the latest skills she’s working on in the gym. She frequently posts clips to Instagram or Twitter of her tumbling passes on floor and beam, and of her defying gravity on bars.

Lately, she’s been giving fans a few glimpses of a new release skill on bars she’s hoping to perform at the Olympics. If she nails it there, the move could be named the Lee. It involves doing one of the most difficult release moves — where she lets go of the high bar — but adds a half turn.

Fans have mostly been supportive online, cheering her on and offering words of encouragement. “You’re really coming for that bars Olympic gold medal and I’m so here for it,” says one person on Twitter. Another says “Queen! Incredible as always” followed by the heart emoji.

Still, this is social media, where critics seize on the smallest of mistakes, pointing out flaws, even writing off the difficulty of her moves. Lee makes everything look so effortless that people forget she’s doing things most people will never be able to do.

“Especially if we have a bad routine and we get hate on it or negative comments, it’s just: Why do you gotta do that?” Lee wondered. “We spend every single day in the gym, nobody sees the hard work that goes in and it’s just one little mishap that happens in the competition, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not working hard.”

Still, some good comes out of those nasty comments.

“I used to get really upset about it,” she said. “But now I get upset about it and go into the gym and work even harder and to prove to them that I can.”

A roller coaster of a year

Last year, Lee showed the haters what she’s capable of. In her first year on the senior circuit, she finished second at nationals and went on to win gold, silver and bronze medals at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

She did it while recovering from a stress fracture in her ankle — and while her father recovered from a traumatic spinal injury.

In August, the day before she was to leave for nationals in Kansas City, Missouri, John Lee fell while helping a friend trim tree branches. He broke his ribs and injured his spinal cord, becoming paralyzed from the chest down.

Even though she knew her appearance was crucial to building momentum toward the Olympics, Sunisa Lee debated whether to skip nationals to be with her dad. Out of her entire family, it’s been her father who has shared her Olympic aspirations, serving as her biggest cheerleader.

“There was a point where I was thinking to not go because I have next year,” she said.

But go she did, though “my head was everywhere and I was a mess,” Lee said.

During the two days of competition, she rallied. Lee ended up in second place behind Biles, the five-time Olympic medalist. She also won the uneven bars title and took bronze in floor.

“I ended up pulling myself together and switching gears and competing for my dad,” she said.

He was watching from the hospital when she went on to win a world team title in Stuttgart, Germany, in October. He went home in time to see her compete in the all-around competition days later.

John Lee recently finished physical therapy at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, where he’s been working on gaining more independence. He — along with the rest of her family — have made plans to be there in Tokyo when Sunisa wins her gold medal.

“If I could get up, I’ll do a back flip,” John Lee said of how he’ll celebrate.

One more year

The decision to postpone the 2020 Games wasn’t totally unexpected. Sunisa Lee had been preparing for the possibility since earlier this month, when a major competition she was supposed to compete in was canceled.

But she said the news was met with a mixture of sadness and relief. Sadness, because it’s a big ask of elite athletes to wait one more year; the training they do day in and out can be brutal. Relief because at least now they know what will happen. For weeks, organizers had been hesitant to delay the games, despite increasing pushback.

Lee is trying to look on the bright side, though.

“Now I’ve got one more year to improve,” she said.