Suni Lee’s Graceful Rise In Gymnastics Belies The Challenges, Struggles Of Past Two Years
by Chrös McDougall
Suni Lee poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Before most of her gymnastics competitions, Suni Lee goes to her dad, John, for some words of encouragement. His advice ahead of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last month in St. Louis proved particularly prescient.
“He basically just told me to go out there and do what I normally do, not too much, not too little,” Lee recalled, “because what I’ve been doing has been working.”
Going out and just doing what she normally does, Suni not only finished second in the two-part competition that ran June 24-27, thus securing an automatic berth on the Olympic team, but she also defied conventional wisdom on night two when she outscored teammate Simone Biles.
With an Olympic gold medal and a record five world titles in the all-around, not to mention a winning streak dating back to 2013, Biles has long competed under the disclaimer that she’s so good she could fall twice and still win. On that final night at trials, though, when Biles proved uncharacteristically human with a fall on bars and a few other mistakes, the 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, was ready, scoring 58.166 to Biles’ 57.533.
“It still hasn’t processed in my head and I still don’t believe it, I have to keep looking at the scores,” Lee said afterward.
Biles, to be sure, is still the favorite in Tokyo. At her best, the 24-year-old remains a significant step ahead of anyone in the world — ever.
Make no mistake, though, what Lee accomplished that night put the world on notice.
Lee has been on the upswing since the summer of 2019, when she finished second to Biles at that year’s national championships, then went on to win a full set of medals at the world championships — team gold, plus individual silver on floor exercise and bronze on uneven bars.
She confirmed that status as Olympic favorite three weeks before the trials, when she was again runner-up to Biles at the U.S. championships.
Now Lee is primed to be one of the brightest stars at the Tokyo Games, which begin July 23.
Already expected to play a major role for the U.S. team, which is heavily favored to win gold, Lee should contend for the uneven bars gold medal, and her performance at trials showed she has true potential for an all-around medal, too.
The grace with which she’s risen in the sport belies the struggles she’s faced away from it, however. And even just a few weeks ago her Olympic fate was anything but certain, including to Lee herself.
In August 2019, just days before Lee’s breakout nationals, John was helping a neighbor trim a tree when he fell from a ladder, leaving him partially paralyzed from the chest down. As Suni was taking the gymnastics world by storm that year, setting herself up as a favorite for the next year’s Olympic team, John watched along from a hospital bed in Minneapolis.
Then the pandemic hit.
Lee’s high school closed down, and so did her gym. Then the goal she was working toward, the one that was finally within reach, was pulled away from her: the 2020 Olympics were pushed back to 2021.
It was a lot for the teenager to take. Even when she was able to get back to Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, Minnesota, her mind remained stuck in lockdown.
“After COVID and quarantine I was really unmotivated, and it was just really hard for me to get back in the gym,” she said. “Because we had so much time off and I just felt like I wasn’t good enough anymore.”
The struggles didn’t stop after returning to the gym. Lee had two close relatives die from COVID-19, and a COVID scare of her own. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lee tested negative but remained in isolation out of an abundance of caution for her family.
On top of all that, Lee also broke her foot, which in turn gave way to an ankle injury that kept Lee from competing the all-around in her first two competitions of 2021. Some in the gymnastics community were wondering out loud if Lee might be better off focusing on her world-class bars routine and trying to make the Olympics as an event specialist rather than as an all-arounder for the team competition.
Lee heard the speculation.
“I feel like people counted me out because I was only doing bars and beam for a little bit,” she said after making her return to the all-around in early June at the U.S. championships. “But I think by trials I’ll be back to 100 percent.”
She confirmed that progress to the media ahead of trials, saying her ankle was “pretty much 100 percent,” and then showcased it throughout the weekend. The visible limp from nationals having gone away, Lee hit all eight routines and finished with the top score on bars and beam.
Especially promising for Lee was the fact that she still has room for improvement. After scoring a monster 15.300 on bars on Friday, Lee reverted to an easier routine on Sunday and still hit 14.900 — second only to her Friday score among all 34 bars routines in St. Louis. She also plans to add a fourth tumbling pass with a double layout into her floor routine.
“(That tumbling pass) is something I’m really excited for because I hate doing the three-pass floor routine,” she said. “I feel like it just like, I don’t know, it makes me feel worse than the other athletes, so I’m really excited to have the four-pass floor routine.”
Lee is also looking forward to representing the Hmong community in Tokyo, where she will become the first Hmong American to compete for the U.S. Olympic Team. The Hmong are an ethnic group from southeast Asia; thousands of Hmong refugees have immigrated to Minnesota since the 1970s, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
“Competing for the Hmong community is important for me because I feel like it’s so small and people still aren’t aware of it,” Lee said. “And I think a lot of people in the Hmong community also are afraid to branch out and do sports and continue with it, and I want to be someone that inspires them to do it.”
In the hubbub of making the Olympic team that Sunday night, Lee and her Olympic teammates were whisked off the confetti-filled platform to begin a marathon session of obligations. By Monday afternoon, after a long day that started with a “Today” show appearance and went on to photo shoots, team meetings and more media sessions, a weary Lee was ready to head home to St. Paul to see her family.
“I’m excited to go home tonight and see them,” she said.
The St. Louis meet was bittersweet for the family.
John Lee has made progress in his recovery, and though he still uses a wheelchair he’s regained some movement in his legs using electric stimulation. In early June, he joined Suni’s mom, Yeev Thoj, and three of her siblings on a 16-hour drive to watch her at nationals in Fort Worth, Texas. They were in the crowd in St. Louis, too.
“We’re all just kind of trying to soak it in,” she said at nationals. “They’re all super excited; I’m really excited.”
With the Tokyo Games closed to non-Japanese residents, however, the trials marked the last time her family could see her compete in person before Tokyo. And with Suni planning to enroll and compete at Auburn after the Games, St. Louis might have been the last in-person opportunity to watch her at the elite level.
With everything happening so quickly, Suni was able to FaceTime her parents after the trials but didn’t see them before they headed back north. Perhaps that was good practice for Tokyo, where the gymnast will be 14 hours removed from her family.
If John Lee’s pep talks to this point have been any indication, they’ll definitely be worth calling home for.