2020 put U.S. gymnast Suni Lee through the wringer.
Of course, she faced the same huge challenge as all elite gymnasts did: staying ready for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, rescheduled for July 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It meant three weeks out of the gym as facilities closed around the world and in her native Minneapolis. When Lee did return to the gym in June of 2020, she broke her foot a week later.
Soon after her aunt and, then shortly after, uncle both passed away due to COVID-19.
“It was very difficult for myself and my family because they were my closest [relatives],” Lee told Olympics.com last month during an exclusive interview. “They would babysit me when I was younger and if I ever had an injury, they would do everything they could to try and help me feel better.”
All of this came after the Lee family suffered another tragedy right before the 2019 U.S. Championships. That's when her father, John, fell off a ladder while helping a neighbour days before competition was to begin at those championships. He was paralysed.
Lee pushed through it, finishing second at the event to Simone Biles.
Now, all her hardship motivates her:
“Right now, I'm just trying to compete for everybody, for the Hmong community, my dad and my family,” said Lee. “I want them to be proud of me.”
A long road back
Three weeks ago, Lee entered the U.S. Gymnastics Championships with something to prove.
Her broken foot had healed but she was dealing with a sore Achilles that had limited her training and kept her out of all-around competition in the three event she’d entered previously in 2021.
But at the event in Ft. Worth, Texas, Lee answered any questions about whether she was still an all-around contender.
She finished second, just as she had at the last U.S. nationals in 2019.
“I think this was a really good confidence booster because I wasn’t even at my full potential on floor,” Lee said afterward. “I’m really proud of myself.”
As she should be. The 18-year-old won the bars national title and finished second (to Biles) on the balance beam. She was fifth-best on floor where she executed just a three-pass routine.
“I feel like I’ll be able to add four passes back into my floor routine for trials,” said Lee, “and then just keeping working on my vault, getting it back to how it was at Worlds [in 2019].”
Lee’s family watches along
Lee’s return to the all-around podium at the U.S. championships marks her firmly in contention to join Biles at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But more than that performance, Lee was celebrating competition for the first time in nearly three years in front of her father.
“It means a lot [to be here], especially now that Sunisa is getting close to the end of her gymnastics career.” John Lee said, beaming, just before competition began in Texas. “She’s all grown up.”
He, his wife and three of Suni’s siblings had made the 16-hour long drive from Minneapolis to Texas.
Suni Lee found her family in the stands just moments before her first performance at the competition. She started on the uneven bars where she has one of the most difficult routines in the world and nailed it.
“It was amazing having him in the stands,” Suni Lee said. “Before my bar routine, I was trying to look for him and I was getting nervous because I didn’t know where they were.
“Then, right before I went, I saw them and I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be a good routine,” she continued.
A good routine indeed, as she posted a 15.300 on the event. It was the highest score of the event by anyone not named Biles and the highest score that didn’t come on the vault.
Her biggest dream becomes a welcome distraction
All this has happened despite the hardships Lee and her family have faced since March of last year.
But in one way, it has happened because of those events.
For Lee, making the Olympic Games has become an escape. A time and a place when she doesn’t have to think about anything else other than making a lifelong dream come true.
I think what helps me not focus on everything else that’s going on is just honestly going into the gym and working towards the Olympics every single day,” said Lee, “because that’s the one thing that will always keep me motivated.
“It’s something I’ve wanted for so long, and I’m not going to give up until I make the Olympic team.”
Lee’s dream won’t require much more waiting, as Team USA will name its women’s squad for the Tokyo Games Sunday (27 June) at the U.S. Olympic trials in St. Louis, Missouri.
“It’s so nerve-wracking knowing that I could be an Olympian,” said Lee. “But I’m really excited because I feel like right now, I’m doing pretty well in the gym.”