Who to watch for the 2020 Olympics…Sunisa Lee

“We just train every day as hard as we can and check some boxes along the way,” Graba said. “We want to put ourselves in contention for a spot at the Olympic Trials and then hopefully she gets selected. That’s what we were aiming for.”

16-year-old Suni Lee finishes 2nd to Simone Biles at US Nationals | NBC Sports

Sunisa Lee sets sights on 2020 Olympics — and Simone Biles

Sunisa Lee entered the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Mo., last weekend knowing she was competing for second place. And there was nothing she could do about it.

You don’t stand atop the podium when Simone Biles is also in the field of competitors.

“She’s pretty much unbeatable,” Lee said with a laugh. “You basically know she’s going to win every time she’s in a competition. She’s just so good. I really look up to her, so it was cool competing against her.”

Just as cool was standing right beside Biles (118.500) on the podium, something Lee (113.550) assured after a stunning performance in the all-around competition, finishing in second place, which might as well be first place considering the fact she was going up against the GOAT.

“It was definitely a surreal moment,” Lee said. “I never thought that was going to happen. I’m super proud of myself because I’ve been doing everything that I can to get up on the podium.”

This entire process has been a decade in the making for the 16-year-old from St. Paul, who became a household name over the weekend, and has a very realistic chance of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Still, as much as Lee has followed a traditional path since joining Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada as a 6-year-old, she likes to talk about the prologue of her story before talking about the countless training hours she’s put in. She was a self-described hyper kid growing up, “flipping around the house” long before she ever catapulted off the vault or swung on the uneven bars.

“It just came natural to me,” Lee said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. I was always jumping on the bed or having my dad (John Lee) spot me while I was doing backflips and stuff like that. Finally, my mom (Yeev Thoj) got tired of it, and she knew a friend that was friends with someone at Midwest Gymnastics. That’s kind of how I got my start.”

As soon as she stepped foot in the gym, she was hooked. If she wasn’t at the gym, she was watching highlights on YouTube, dreaming of one day competing at the highest level.

“I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world,” Lee said. “I just never thought I could be this good.”

While she wasn’t aware of her raw talent then, others were, including her coach, Jess Graba, who has known her since she enrolled at Midwest Gymnastics, and has coached her since Lee was 8.

“You could see right away that she was talented,” Graba said. “We just wanted to make sure we didn’t screw anything up. She started to develop over time — her mentality, her training hours, her work ethic — and I’d say as a 10-year-old, that’s when we kind of realized that she had what it took.”

It was also around that time that Lee watched the 2012 Olympics in London with the Fierce Five — Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber— leading Team USA to the gold medal.

“I looked up to them so much,” Lee said. “That was when I decided I really wanted to be an Olympian.”

That’s easier said that done. You don’t simply decide to be an Olympian. You have to be the best of the best, and even then it’s hardly a given.

“We knew she was in that category even back then,” Graba said.

There was a noticeable shift in Lee over the next couple of years with her focus reaching a level it hadn’t in the past.

“I don’t think it was that serious when I first started,” Lee said. “I just kind of followed what my coaches told me. As soon as I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I really started focusing on it and putting a bunch of training hours in.”

Perhaps the biggest thing that has set Lee apart since then is her dedication to her craft. She spends most of the day in the gym, working tirelessly on her craft, even if that means missing some of the little things that come with being a teenager.

“I don’t really have a social life with my training hours,” Lee said. “Plus, most of my friends are other gymnasts, and everyone lives all across the country.”

Aside from that, she still has to complete schoolwork like any other kid her age. She’s a student at South St. Paul, and while she misses quite a bit of school for practices and competitions, she’s still responsible for making sure she’s caught up with everything.

“It’s super hard to balance,” Lee said. “Basically, I go to school for half the day and end at like noon and then I go straight to practice until like 8 o’clock. Luckily, I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, so it’s a little bit easier.”

If her busy schedule isn’t enough pressure in and of itself, Lee also carries the weight of an entire community on her shoulders. She is very proud of her Hmong culture and has developed quite the following around the Twin Cities.

“After I joined gymnastics and started making a name for myself, more and more kids from my community started doing gymnastics,” Lee said. “I have so many supporting me from my community. I’m so thankful for them, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Already a trailblazer in her community, if Lee qualifies for the Olympics next year in Tokyo, she would be the first Hmong-American gymnast ever to do so.

“It’s really nerve-wracking and scary to think about,” Lee said. “There are so many people in my community that are always saying how if I make it to the Olympics I’d be making history. I just don’t want to let anyone down. I try not to think about it too much. That said, it is always in the back of my head because it’s been my goal for pretty much my whole life.”

Not for one second does Lee hide from her goals. Even if she wanted to, Graba wouldn’t let her.

“I don’t think anyone should run from their dreams,” her coach said. “If that’s what she wants to do, then we need to talk about it, and we need to have a plan about how to get there.”

There’s a lot of work to be done before then with Lee now turning her attention to the World Gymnastics Trials at the end of next month. If she gets selected to the Team USA roster, she would compete in the World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

After that comes the Olympic Trials, and then, hopefully, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“We just train every day as hard as we can and check some boxes along the way,” Graba said. “We want to put ourselves in contention for a spot at the Olympic Trials and then hopefully she gets selected. That’s what we were aiming for.”

Asked about whether he’s worried about the pressure getting to Lee at some point, Graba simply pointed to her performance over the weekend, noting how she rose to the occasion on the grandest stage.

“I think it surprised a lot of people that a 16-year-old was able to handle that amount of pressure,” Graba said. “Just seeing her compete on that stage against some of the best gymnasts in the world, including Simone Biles, who can be as intimidating to anyone in the world right now, was really fun to watch.”

As for whether Lee has goals of chasing Biles down, she admitted she does, though that’s far from her main focus.

“I can’t try to be Simone,” Lee said. “I just have to be myself.”

From the looks of it, that might be more than enough.

By  | Pioneer Press


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