KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It came as a surprise to many to see the name Sunisa Lee, a first-year senior and virtual unknown to casual gymnastics fans, so high up on the leaderboard throughout the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships – including Lee herself.
“All the gymnasts competing at the senior level are really talented and I didn’t expect myself to be up there with them because I always watch them and I didn’t think I was as good as them, I guess,” Lee suggested.
Outscoring and outperforming a handful of world medalists, the 16-year-old placed second in the all-around at the two-day meet, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
And in this field, second is as good as first. The only gymnast to place higher than her was Simone Biles, often referred to as the G.O.A.T. – greatest of all time – in the sport.
Biles, a four-time Olympic and 14-time world champion, secured her record-tying sixth U.S. all-around title Sunday night with a total score of 118.500. She had a sizable victory over Lee’s 113.550; however, the three gymnasts that followed all had totals in the 111s, which included 2018 world team champion Grace McCallum (111.850), 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd (111.700) and 2019 American Cup champion Leanne Wong (111.250).
To see her name immediately following Biles’ was mind-blowing for the St. Paul, Minnesota, native.
“It’s crazy. I never thought that I could be that good,” Lee admitted. “So when I saw that, I was just shocked and I didn’t know what to do. My coach, he always says, yeah, you can be second, but I never believe him. I guess he’s right this time.”
Lee’s rise to the senior podium is no surprise to those inside the sport, including USA Gymnastics women’s high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster, who said he has seen her potential for quite some time.
“She moves so fluidly – sequential movement for her is so beautiful,” Forster said. “She’s a really beautiful gymnast.”
Lee first tried the sport at age 6 – exactly a decade ago.
“When I was younger I used to jump around everywhere, like on the bed and on the floor,” Lee said. “My mom, she thought I was crazy.”
A family friend knew a coach at Midwest Gymnastics Center and suggested she enroll. Lee has been at the club ever since, now under the tutelage of Jess Graba.
She quickly excelled, jumping three levels within a year when she was 8, and began to have Olympic aspirations once she made it into the Hopes program, considered a fast track to the elite program in athletes’ pre-teen years.
“That’s the year I started getting more serious and realizing that I could actually, maybe, have a chance to go to the Olympics,” Lee recalled.
She made the junior national team in 2017, placing eighth in the all-around and as high as fifth on floor exercise.
Lee is believed to be the first Hmong-American gymnast to make a national team, and next year could become the first to make an Olympic team.
In 2018, her third year as a junior, she finally reached the podium, earning third in all-around, first on uneven bars and tying for second on balance beam.
Those have long been her strongest events, but her senior debut this year has shown she’s capable of more.
“She’s proven that she’s also a good all-arounder,” Forster said of her recent performances.
At her first and, to date, only senior international assignment, Lee won gold in the all-around at the Jesolo Trophy in March in Italy, boosting her confidence and proving she’s ready for the senior stage.
A stress fracture in her ankle, suffered shortly after Italy, caused her to compete only bars and beam at her next two meets, the American Classic in June and U.S. Classic in July.
Feeling back to 100 percent, Lee competed all four in Kansas City, winning the bars title with scores of 14.750 and 15.050; her bars routine Sunday had the highest degree of difficulty of the meet (6.4). Her execution score on the apparatus was the second-highest.
Winning the bars title was the highlight of the week for Lee.
“I was so proud of my bar routine tonight,” she squealed. “My goal coming in today was to hit a 15 on bars, which I got, and I was super excited about that. After my bar routine, I was so happy and I feel like everything’s paid off.”
She also podiumed on beam, placing third with a 14.350 and 13.850. Her first-night degree of difficulty score (6.2) was second-highest of the competition to Biles’.
Perhaps the most promising for Lee’s future was finishing fourth on floor (13.950, 14.000).
“We’ve always known that she’s brilliant on bars and beam, those are her highest start values,” Forster said, continuing, “But her start value on floor is also good. “Vault is, it’s surprising when she lands because it’s hard for her. She does the double twist but it’s not easy for her. Everyone’s always on pins and needles with that because we don’t want her to get hurt, but I’ve noticed over the last couple meets she gets better and better. She’s really coming into her full potential.”
Next up for Lee is a national team camp in early September, likely followed by the world team selection camp later that month.
Her performances at her first senior-level nationals will only help her at those camps.
“That kind of boosts my confidence a little bit because then I know I can compete with everybody else also trying for worlds,” she explained.
Lee’s ultimate goal of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is less than one year away, and that goal became a lot more realistic Sunday night.
“It adds a lot of pressure,” Lee said on realizing how capable she is of making it to an Olympic Games. “It’s really nerve-wracking; I try not to think about it a lot just because it gets me going a little bit, but it’s always in the back of your head.”