Sunisa Lee's Moment Must Wait

She was on the verge of taking the world stage, challenging Simone Biles' dominance and putting her name on the sport of gymnastics. Now she's living in Olympic limbo.
photo of Jessica Taylor PriceJessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IJune 12, 2020

Where does the most exciting young gymnast in the United States keep her medals?

At the moment, they're spilled out on her bedroom floor. "It's like, kind of a mess," Sunisa "Suni" Lee says, looking around the room, the ceiling lined with bright purple LED lights. "My medal holder broke. Literally, the other day, I was sleeping and the whole thing just fell over. It knocked over. Because it was so heavy."

If this strikes Lee as a fitting metaphor—the medal holder buckling under the weight of her accomplishments—she doesn't show it. In fact, the 17-year-old St. Paul, Minnesota, native and Tokyo Olympics prospect doesn't seem too impressed by herself at all. Instead, on this day in late April, she exudes steadiness, speaking in the clipped, professional manner of a media-trained athlete, complete with aphorisms about going out there and doing your best.

She casually name-drops Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time ("She's a really cool person"), and says coming in second to her at the 2019 U.S. National Gymnastics Championships was "really cool." Competing at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships was "really fun." If the medals weren't spilled all over the place, just from talking to Lee, you would have no idea how impressive she is or how much is at stake.

You wouldn't know that she competes with one of the most difficult—and thrilling to watch—bar routines in the world, one that could win Olympic gold next year in Tokyo. Or that in September, she came within four-tenths of a point of beating Biles in the all-around competition at the U.S. Worlds Trials—the closest anyone has come to the GOAT in nearly seven years.

You wouldn't know that behind the understated exterior, Lee is carrying plenty of baggage. She should be preparing to become the first Hmong American to make it to the Olympics next month, appearing on every "Olympians to watch out for" list and getting approached by athletic brands for lucrative sponsorship deals. Instead, like the rest of us, she's at home, where she's helping her father, John, recover from an accident that left him paralyzed just two days before nationals.

While she waits, she deals with the uncertainty of what could happen between now and the new Olympic dates, in 2021, and whether she'll be ready to meet the expectations of her coaches, who've put in so many hours; her family, which has already bought plane tickets; her father, who is working hard to be well enough to go to Tokyo; and her Hmong community, which looks to her to represent them with pride.

You wouldn't know because Lee is good at what she does, and that means she's steady as a rock, with calloused skin too thick to rip. Biles says of Lee, "I admire her ability to take anything thrown at her." 

STUTTGART, GERMANY - OCTOBER 13: Simone Biles of The United States celebrates winning gold next to silver medalist Sunisa Lee of The United States  in Women's Floor Final during day 10 of the 49th FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Hanns-Marti
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

But amid all of this, Lee is a 17-year-old. And occasionally, that breaks through—whether it's in the form of a messy bedroom, a chuckle at her family or a bright smile when she thinks of her best friends.

Like the rest of us, Lee is at home, and things are uncertain. It wasn't what any of us expected. But sometimes, despite the best-laid plans, things can get messy.

The video is from 2015, from a meet in USA Gymnastics' sub-elite HOPES division. In it, tiny 12-year-old Sunisa Lee starts her floor routine standing erect, focused, with her hands flicked back at her sides, her white and purple leotard shimmering under the arena lighting. You can hear her mom say, "Come on, Sunisa," softly from behind the shaky camera. Lee's music starts, and she springs into action, doing a roundoff to a back handspring into a tight double Arabian, landing lightly. She leaps and gambols from one end of the floor to the other, hitting her splits with ease. Her movements are precise, almost robotic, as studied as a ballerina's.

Lee competes with what she knows, what she's practiced in the gym countless times, running almost on autopilot. But in her head, something new is taking shape.

It is beginning to become clear to her that she might have what it takes to make it to the Olympics. "That's when the dream kind of emerged," she says now.

Longtime coach Jess Graba is in the frame, pacing the perimeter of the floor as Lee's career begins to flourish under his watchful eye. Graba still remembers the day Lee first walked through the door to his gym, six years before this video was taken. "She was a little crazy," he laughs. "She had so many weird habits." Like with many gymnasts, Lee's career began when her parents found they had a high-energy child who loved to flip. "She would start flipping outdoors," her mom, Yeev Thoj, says, "at the park and things like that, at a young age." At six, Lee was "addicted to doing backflips," Thoj adds. She watched YouTube videos of "all the super-good elites and Olympians," like Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, and did gymnastics at home.

With a small child who, in Graba's words, was "bouncing off the walls," Thoj had to find her a place where she could exert her energy safely. Enter Midwest Gymnastics, a highwayside facility in Little Canada, a tiny suburb of St. Paul. Graba, who started the gym in 1995, could see Lee's talent right away. He assigned her to a coach who helped train her out of the "weird habits" she'd developed from backyard gymnastics. Then he took her on as his own pupil. Lee has been working with him and his wife, coach Alison Lim, ever since. Now, she trains between 36 and 38 hours a week while maintaining a full high school schedule.

The time commitment means Lee's relationship with her coaches has grown airtight throughout the years—another staple of any elite gymnast's biography. "My wife and I basically spend so much time with her that she's kind of like one of our kids," Graba says. Lee agrees, saying Graba and Lim are "both like my parents." The first time Lee did a back handspring stepout to a back handspring to a full-twisting layout on a balance beam in one training session, in 2018, it was because they'd offered her a popsicle.

But this is where her story starts to diverge from even elite trajectories. Lee's high-difficulty routines and steadiness have made her dominant at a level that few gymnasts manage to reach. She won the 2015 HOPES Championship in Chicago at age 12, qualified for elite competition at 13 and made the junior national team at 14. At the next three national championships she attended, she climbed the ranks each time, placing 10th in the all-around in 2016, eighth in 2017 and third in 2018.

USA's Sunisa Lee performs to place second in the floor event of the apparatus finals at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on October 13, 2019. (Photo by Thomas KIENZLE / AFP)

Behind the scenes, the elite lifestyle brought new challenges. Lee found her biggest supporters in her mom and especially her dad, whom Graba calls "the rock in the family" and whom Lee calls her "best friend." Even if her parents don't fully understand how good she is ("We don't know anything about Olympic potential or anything like that," Thoj says), they do everything they can to fund their daughter's dream—no small commitment considering that, according to a 2012 Forbes analysis, doing so can cost upward of $1,000 per month. To meet the costs in the past, Lee's family has hosted fundraisers, and Graba has waived gym fees. Her parents have also made difficult decisions about who gets to attend her competitions and who stays home with their three younger children.

But at 12, it was starting to look like all this investment would be worth it for the little athlete flipping in her white and purple leotard. Lee's dream was coming together.

She had no idea that, years later, just when it was on the verge of coming true, it would all start to unravel.

When Lee lies in bed at night trying to fall asleep, she's not in her bedroom. In her head, she's swinging on the uneven bars, back and forth like a pendulum, in front of thousands of people at the most important meet of her life. In a dark arena with a spotlight on the bars, all eyes are on her, and for those 30 seconds, everything is on the line.

"I like to visualize myself in big competitions, really nerve-wracking competitions," she says. Then, "When I'm at the competition, I know what to do."

Lee believes her grit in such situations is her greatest strength, citing it as the key to her success on bars, her best event. In gymnastics, the balance beam has the reputation as the most nerve-wracking, but Lee begs to differ. It's bars, she says.

"It's mentally and physically hard compared to the other events," she says. "When you're off [your game], you know the whole thing's going to be off, like you can feel it. ... You have to be really mentally strong from the beginning." So Lee works with Graba on mental workouts, writing down her routines and the words she says to herself during them. She does dance-throughs on beam and talks to herself. And when she's trying to fall asleep, she visualizes herself on the beam, the floor, the bars or the vault.

That explains why watching Lee compete, you would never know she was nervous. Despite being "just terrified" of vault, she's yet to have a bad one. She performs the Nabieva—one of the most difficult skills on bars—and catches it consistently. And while the 2019 City of Jesolo Trophy competition in March 2019 was her first as a senior elite, she went ahead and won it. "Nobody really expected me to be on top [in Jesolo]," she said. "I was with such amazing seniors."

Nobody expected her to excel at nationals either, when the rookie would make her return to the all-around after spending five months recovering from a stress fracture in her ankle. The two-day meet was a huge step toward proving she was ready to make her first worlds team and becoming a contender for the Olympic team. But then, it happened. "Nationals was really hard because"—she pauses, her eyes searching while she does the math—"it happened like two days before I was supposed to leave."

"It" was something she never would have thought to prepare for.

Two days before her flight, Lee's father climbed a ladder to help a neighbor trim a tree. Then he fell, breaking several bones and injuring his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Suddenly, the rock of the family and "the reason I do it all," as Lee has described him, was in the hospital undergoing eight hours of surgery.

In shock, Lee and her coaches debated whether she should sit out of the competition. "I really wanted to stay home with my dad," she says. It also could have made for a risky situation: A distracted gymnast can make dangerous mistakes. In the end, though, she decided to go. "I just told myself that I'd been working so hard and I wouldn't want to just give up on it," Lee says. "I just went to championships ... and competed for my dad and not for myself."

Lee mounted the beam for Day 1 of the competition, hitting her leaps as cameras flickered, the crowd cheered and music blared. On Day 2, she finished her final routine with a double tuck on the floor, saluted the judges and hugged her coaches, still wearing her poker face. She'd hit eight out of eight routines, placing second behind Biles. Few aside from Lee and her coaches knew at the time that she was putting on a show for her dad, who was watching from his hospital room along with her mom.

A month later, at the U.S. worlds team selection camp, she did it again, making the worlds team and trailing Biles by just 0.35, the closest anyone had been to the four-time Olympic gold medalist since 2013.

USA's Sunisa Lee (L, 2nd) and USA's Simone Biles (1st) pose on the podium after the floor event of the apparatus finals at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on October 13, 20

Lee looks back on that national championships as the meet that stands out most in her career, calling it a "big steppingstone." "I kind of proved to myself that I can do anything I want when I put my mind to it," she says.

But the trial wasn't over: John developed pneumonia and had a long road to recovery ahead of him, one that would stretch the family's finances even further. They set up a GoFundMe account to cover medical expenses and lost wages. Meanwhile, after being so successful at nationals, Lee had something new to prove: Could she do it again, this time on the world stage?

There's a drawer in Lee's room that she rarely opens.

This is where she keeps her "unlucky" leotards—the ones she wore during a bad practice or a competition where she fell. The rest of them, including a "lucky" leotard from Simone Biles' line, are hung up in her closet.

"I'm very superstitious," Lee says. Like many athletes, she draws steadiness from routine and ritual. She works out at Midwest almost every day. Before every meet, she does her hair and makeup and has an adrenaline-boosting dance party—alone. And like every bar worker, she likes her bars a certain way. The ropes supporting the structure should be tight so she has more control and can better time the endless connections that are her calling card. The surface of the bars should be "grippy," she says. "I like them really wet and [with] a little bit of chalk, because it keeps it stickier." That's where her lucky pink spray bottle comes in handy. In every meet, you can see her grab it when she finishes her bar routine.

For now, though, America's second-best gymnast is recovering from a long stay on the bench, her routines put on hold. Midwest was closed for months before reopening this week. Like most of her teammates, this left her without the equipment she needs to stay in top shape.

And physically, Lee had nowhere to go but down. Just before the pandemic, she was nearly at her peak, ready to compete at the Stuttgart World Cup, an international all-around meet and Olympic qualifier, in March. She had prepared for months for the meet, and its cancellation opened the floodgates she had carefully put up. "When I found out that [Stuttgart] was canceled, I was at home..." She pauses, thinking. "I started crying when I found out; I found out through Twitter, actually." She texted Graba, who encouraged her to cry as much as she needed to. Then, the next day, she was back in the gym. "That obviously was really hard," she says.

Lee had a statement to make at that competition, with a brand-new bar routine and a game-changing skill to boot: a Nabieva with a half twist at the end. If she had completed the move successfully at Stuttgart, it would have been named after her. That routine was a tribute to her strong relationship with Graba. "Me and Jess came up with that routine together," she says, "so it was really special because we both wanted a skill named after me."

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

But Lee also wanted Stuttgart to be a redemption story. "I was really excited to compete in Germany again," she says, "especially after world championships." Six months earlier, Lee attended the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships there. After a standout season as a rookie senior elite, she was a no-brainer for the team, and despite still dealing with the fallout from her father's injury, she helped her team to a gold medal and qualified behind Simone Biles for the all-around final. But then, something went wrong.

When her lucky pink spray bottle fell apart at worlds, so did her routine in the all-around final. "Um, yeah," she says with a laugh. "I'm convinced that I fell on bars at worlds because my pink spray bottle is my lucky spray bottle and it broke the day before, so..." She's joking, but only mostly. After the bottle broke, she took the top off another bottle and put it on hers. "But it just wasn't the same," she says. When it was her turn to compete, she caught her Nabieva but botched the connection to her Pak salto, coming off the bar. Her chances of medaling in the all-around went from high to zero.

She set the record straight later in the competition, going on to win a silver medal in the floor final and a bronze in the bars final. But until she gets her next opportunity, Lee has unfinished business. And now, those opportunities keep getting pushed further and further away.

Like with Stuttgart, Lee found out the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had been postponed via Twitter. She took out her phone at the end of a day of practice, saw the news and cried again. "It's been our goal for 12 years now," she says.

The postponement was a tough pill to swallow for many Olympic prospects, but perhaps more so for gymnasts, who are at a particularly high risk for injury, growth spurts and burnout. Lee has dealt with her share of injuries—in fact, she credits her expertise on bars in part to frequent ankle issues—and knows that her chances depend on whether her physical and mental health holds out for another year. And the return to her previous level of fitness will be an uphill battle.

"Practice is gonna be so hard when I come back," she told her teammates on a YouTube live stream last month. "Like, I'm not even gonna know how to do anything." In a recent interview with the New York Times, she said Graba told her that for every week she's out of the gym, it will take three weeks to get back to that level. She'd been out of the gym for nine weeks.

Lee remains hopeful. The extra time could be a gift, allowing her to hone her craft before finally having the opportunity to reach "our" goal—the goal she's shared with her coaches for over a decade. It could also give her father the time he needs to recover enough to follow her to Tokyo. Nine months after the accident, John isn't walking yet, but he makes daily Zoom calls with his doctors and is determined to be well enough to make the trip, with Lee's help. "He's doing everything he can to get stronger and healthier so he can make it to the Olympics with me," she says.

If he does, and she makes the team, it could be the first time her entire family—her parents and her five siblings—sees her compete. Her siblings have never had the chance. "My whole family bought their plane tickets for the Olympics already," Lee says, laughing. "Everybody got their passports and everything."

It could be the first time a Hmong American makes the Olympics. Ever. Lee says she's received overwhelming support from the community in St. Paul, which has the country's largest Hmong American population for a city. Members of the community send her letters and have come together to fundraise for her meets. In the gym, little girls approach her and say she's the reason they started doing gymnastics. Representing Hmong Americans at the Olympics "would mean a lot to me," she says.

Now, uncertainty abounds over whether an Olympics will be held at all. If it is, Lee will have to stay steady for another year and make the team, which, thanks to the postponement, is now open for a new crop of athletes who wouldn't have been age-eligible in 2020. This creates even more competition for the four spots on Team USA.

But if Lee feels any pressure, she doesn't show it. And if she envisions more obstacles along the way to the Olympics, she doesn't seem too worried about them.

"What's one more year going to do?"


Jessica Taylor Price is a freelancer covering women's gymnastics and other sports. Her work has appeared in ESPNW, Deadspin and Teen Vogue. Follow her on Twitter: @jesstaylorprice.


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