Sunisa Lee competes in Women's Floor Final during the 49th FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 13, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germnay.
Even at somewhere less than 100 percent, Sunisa Lee still came out swinging.
Sterling routines on the uneven bars and just about everything else helped the 18-year-old secure second place behind Simone Biles at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships earlier this month in Fort Worth, Texas, boosting Lee’s chances of being selected for the Olympic team this summer.
Almost as good as a silver medal? The satisfaction that came with it.
“People kind of doubted me because I’d been injured,” said Lee, referring to the armchair pundits whose speculation about who will be chosen for the four team slots fills social media feeds of the online “gymternet” community.
Her stock took a tumble after May’s U.S. Classic, where she fell from both the uneven bars and balance beam. The two days in Fort Worth proved redemptive.
And this was not a Lee near the top of her game. In her mind, everything at nationals could have been better, at least a little bit.
“I wasn’t even at my full potential on floor, my vault could be better and my bars was a little rough,” she said. Her new floor exercise still lacks a planned fourth tumbling pass, which will push her difficulty value higher.
Still. This was Lee’s second silver medal finish behind the seemingly unbeatable Biles in the last two editions of the U.S. championships, one the Auburn signee delivered with outwardly calm routines that gave no hint of the turbulent series of events that has changed her life dramatically over the past two years.
The day before Lee was set to leave for the 2019 U.S. championships, her father John fell from a tree in the family’s backyard, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the chest down. After contemplating withdrawing from her first senior nationals, Lee traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, anyway. While John Lee was in surgery to stabilize the vertebrae in his spinal cord, his 16-year-old daughter was struggling to keep the flame of her Olympic dream alight.
She managed it all, tunnel visioning her way through her routines because she was certain that’s what her father would have wanted.
The turmoil did provide a healthy dose of perspective.
“It’s not going to be the end of the world if I do terrible,” Lee commented at the world championships six weeks later. “I don’t have to be perfect, and I can just do my own thing.”
Whatever she was doing, it worked. Lee left Stuttgart, Germany, as the only gymnast to win a complete set of medals there: gold with the U.S. team, silver for her floor exercise and bronze on uneven bars.
By the end of 2019, it looked like things could only get better for Lee, a high school senior whose accomplishments have made her the pride of the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Hmong community. Then came COVID-19, which claimed the lives of an aunt and uncle, and forced the Olympic delay, which in turn also put a long-anticipated trip to Laos on hold. Her gym was closed for a while, and when Lee was allowed to return, she injured her foot, which has limited her training on vault and floor exercise.
Executing her double-twisting Yurchenko vault in Fort Worth, she wasn’t even expecting to stand it up.
“It’s the first one I’ve done on a competition surface in a long time,” she explained afterward, which contributed to a somewhat laid-back attitude about her final ranking. “I wasn’t paying attention to scores, but just focusing on what I had to do. I would’ve been fine with however I placed.”
If there is one place where Lee is near the top, it is the uneven bars, the event that made her a social media sensation and then a favorite for an Olympic medal. Videos of her showing world class combinations in training have given way to a world class exercise that strings five very difficult release skills together, making her routine one of the most difficult in the world on what is arguably the most competitive event in women’s gymnastics.
Lee was so excited to hit the hardest version of her routine on the first day of the championships that she momentarily turned the wrong way to salute the judges at the end.
“To make it in a competition finally was something that felt so amazing,” she said.
Others were dazzled too.
“(Lee’s performance is) pretty exciting,” remarked U.S. National Team Coordinator Tom Forster, who has a big say in the final four gymnasts chosen. “She’s not really been able, because of injuries, to put together a real solid all-around up to this point, and she seems like she’s right back to where she was in 2019.”
Another two day performance like it at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials next week in St. Louis could reserve her ticket to Tokyo. To get it, Lee knows she’ll have to maintain that focus just a little while longer, calling on the reserves of strength shored up through hard training in the gym and in life.
“We’re at the end,” she said. “Now’s the time to push through.”