Injuries. Trolls. Her own nerves. Gymnast Sunisa Lee battles them all in Olympic quest

A teen posing on a floor mat at a gym.
Sunisa Lee practices on the floor Feb. 5 at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada. Lee has dreamed of making the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team and hopes to compete in Tokyo this summer.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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.

Giving up family vacations and a social life.

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For the last decade, the St. Paul gymnast has been chasing a dream that comes into being just once every four years — and this summer, one that will become reality for just a handful of gymnasts across the country.

Lee is trying to make the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team. She wants to go to Tokyo — assuming the games aren’t canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and win gold.

She wants to do it not only for herself, but also for her dad. John Lee has been her biggest supporter since Day One.

“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 this year 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.

The next three months will be critical as Lee makes her case for why she deserves a spot on the lineup. 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.

Gold medal winner Simone Biles of the U.S., left, and Sunisa Lee
Gold medal winner Simone Biles of the U.S. (left) and Sunisa Lee after the women's all-around final at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Oct. 10, 2019.
Matthias Schrader | AP 2019

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. She’s been mentally preparing, trying not to psych herself out. But she can’t help but feel a little anxious each time she looks at a calendar.

“At the last Olympics I was like, ‘I’ve got four years, that’s a long time,’ but it seems like I said that yesterday,” she said. “Now that I’m looking at it, I have no time left.”

The pressure 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. “That’s where social media kind of sucks, having those people say those things. It’s very bad for my mental health.”

‘Nobody sees the hard work’

Teens stretching at a gym.
Sunisa Lee smiles at her coaches as she stretches with Lyden Saltness during practice March 9. Lee was 6 years old when she began taking lessons.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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.

Close up of a phone as a teen takes a selfie with a girl.
Sunisa Lee takes a selfie with 10-year-old Gwynaeth Hehr of Illinois during a meet-and-greet fundraiser Feb. 9 at Thirty-Six Cafe in St. Paul. Gwynaeth came into town just to meet Lee.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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

A teen holds a door open for a man in a wheelchair.
Sunisa Lee holds the door open for her dad, John, following a fundraiser to benefit the family at Thirty-Six Cafe in St. Paul. John Lee became paralyzed from the chest down after suffering an injury on the day before Sunisa Lee was supposed to leave for nationals.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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, Mo., 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.

Gymnastics medal-winners
All-around gold medalist Simone Biles (center), silver medalist Sunisa Lee (left) and bronze medalist Grace McCallum stand on the podium following the 2019 U.S. women's gymnastics championships in Kansas City, Mo.
Jamie Squire | Getty Images

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 already 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.

Pressure and uncertainty

A teen flips as she dismounts from a balance beam.
Sunisa Lee dismounts as she practices on her favorite balance beam at Midwest Gymnastics Feb. 5.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

At the Atlanta games in 1996, seven gymnasts made up the squad that took home the first-ever women’s team gold. In 2012 and 2016, the next two times that Team USA repeated the feat, that number was down to five.

This year, it’ll be down to four.

The decision by the sport’s international governing body was made reportedly in part because of the United States’ growing dominance. At the last Summer Olympics, the women’s team finished more than eight points ahead of silver medalist Team Russia — an astronomical gap considering this is a sport that typically sees margins of victory in the tenths. The idea was that countries with less depth could more easily field four-person teams.

But then gymnastics officials added another twist: Through a series of complicated international competitions in which points are awarded for top finishers, countries can earn the ability to send additional gymnasts to the Olympics to compete as individuals.

It’s that twist that is now adding an element of uncertainty to Sunisa Lee’s plans. U.S. gymnastics officials can send six gymnasts — four on the team and two individuals — to Tokyo, so they’ve tapped some of their strongest gymnasts to compete at those competitions.

Lee was one of those athletes, until recently. This weekend, she was supposed to represent the United States at the Stuttgart World Cup in Germany, until it was canceled because of coronavirus concerns. But she could also be tapped for one more of those competitions this spring. She won’t know until later.

A man leans on equipment as he watches a teen do a handspring.
Coach Jess Graba (center) watches Sunisa Lee practice earlier this month. Sunisa trains with Graba, Alison Lim (right) and Puner Koy.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“It’s a lot of pressure because we have to win to get more points, and that’s where it gets really stressful,” she said.

It can also be disruptive to her schedule. It means being away from her family for a good chunk of time, and also involves training away from the comfort and familiarity of her home gym. These are crucial months in which time is of the essence in order to perfect skills and polish routines.

“You fly all the way out there, then you fly all the way back, and usually it’ll take you a week or two to get out of the jet lag,” said her coach, Jess Graba, of some international contests.

And the clock is ticking. Nationals are in early June; she’ll need to place in the top eight to automatically qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials June 25-28. The top two all-arounders from that competition will make the Olympic team, while the final two spots will be determined by a selection committee.

Short of a catastrophe, Simone Biles is going to Tokyo, which means that really, only three spots on the team are up for grabs.

That’s what Lee is chasing. She wants to make the four-person team and also compete for a coveted all-around medal.

A teen does ab crunches on a pull-up bar attached to a wall.
Sunisa Lee spends part of her 17th birthday working out at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada on March 9. While she celebrated by having dinner with friends over the weekend, it was back to work on her birthday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

And that’s why, on her 17th birthday earlier this month, she spent the day at the gym like she always does. It’s why she hasn’t had any real time off since the world championships in October.

“I know the goal, I know how close it is, and I know how my other teammates are working really hard and so I kind of want to stay up there with them,” Lee said. “It gets very hard, but I just always remember my goal.”