Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year.
There are only four spots on the 2021 United States Olympic team for women’s artistic gymnasts, down from five at the 2016 Summer Games, and Sunisa Lee, a 17-year-old high school junior from St. Paul, Minn., has a good chance of grabbing one of them.
At the world championships last fall, Lee, whom people call Suni, helped the United States win a team gold medal and also took home two individual medals, a silver on the floor exercise and a bronze on the uneven bars.
But it was Lee’s performance at the national championships in August that proved her toughness, as she excelled despite facing a situation that could have crushed her.
A day before Lee left for the nationals in Kansas City, Mo., her father and biggest fan, John, fell off a ladder while helping a friend trim a tree branch and sustained a spinal cord injury. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
Lee told only a few gymnasts at the competition about her father’s injury because she was afraid of being overwhelmed by emotion and she didn’t want any distractions. During the first two practice days at the nationals, she could hardly concentrate because as her father prepared for an operation on his spine.
But on her first day of competition, he contacted her by FaceTime from his hospital bed. She recalled his saying, “I’m OK. Just go out there and do what you normally do.”
So that’s what she did. Lee finished second to Simone Biles in the all-around event and won the uneven bars competition. These days she’s limited to merely swinging on the bars to keep her hand strength.
Her goal is to make it to the rescheduled Olympics next summer for her father, for the rest of her family and for fellow members of the Hmong community, an ethnic group from Asia that has established a large population in and around St. Paul.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
It hasn’t really hit me that the Olympics aren’t happening this summer. I have a countdown to the Olympic trials on my phone. They would have been in June. I get sad when I see it, but I won’t delete it. I’m scared to let go of the fact that it’s not happening, even though I know it’s not. I don’t want it to be real. I guess I don’t accept it because the Olympics were my biggest dream and goal. I’ve been training for that goal every day for 12 years now and couldn’t wait for the Olympics to happen.
And then after the Olympics, my family had planned to go to Laos, because my parents are from there. They wanted us to see what their lives were like before they came to the United States. They want us to know that not everything came so easily for them, and they want us to do better and try harder so we can have good lives. So it’s disappointing to have to cancel that trip. It’s all so disappointing.
My motivation to get to the Olympics has always been my family and my community. It would be such a big deal for a Hmong American to be in the Olympics for the United States. I want to be one of the best in the world, but I also want to succeed for my family — we have a really big Hmong family — and the amazing supporters that have helped me. I want to do it because a lot of people don’t know that I’m Hmong or what Hmong even is.
Right now, I’m at home most of the day because so many things are closed. My gym closed in March, and I used to spend maybe six or seven hours in the gym every day, so that’s been weird and different. Now I spend a lot of time with my family. I live with my parents and my three younger siblings who are 3, 8 and 10. I also have two older siblings, my stepsiblings, who stay with us sometimes. We all help my dad now that he’s in a wheelchair. I’ve also been helping my mom with cooking and cleaning, because I know she has been through a lot with my dad. I know how to make all the Asian egg rolls like my mom.
But we just found out that our gym is opening on June 1, and I’m really excited. To be able to go to the gym and actually train again is just crazy. I think it’s going to be amazing. I’m so ready for it.
School during quarantine isn’t so bad for me, because I’m used to mostly doing it online. I used to go to the actual public school for an hour a day. I’d go to one class and do the rest at home. I take Algebra 2, Global Studies, World Literature and Chemistry, and now we get our assignments online every morning. I missed a lot of school last year because of the world championships, so I’ve been really busy catching up with my assignments. I really miss school because I got to see my friends there. Now we just FaceTime.
I go to the gym sometimes to do my work. It’s closed to the public, but my coach, Jess Graba, opens the doors for me and he is there cleaning up the gym or sending emails while I work. One of my teammates, Lyden Saltness, does schoolwork there, too, because her mom is a teacher and she comes to help us. There are a lot of people in my house, and it’s quieter and the internet is better at the gym. I set up in the lobby and try not to think about how much I’ve lost because I haven’t been training and how I haven’t seen my friends in such a long time.
Lately, I’ve been doing some basic conditioning or stretching at the gym when I’m there on school days. It’s kind of the same stuff I’d do if I was at home. If the Olympics weren’t canceled, I’d be on my way to peaking, which means I would’ve been in the best shape ever, doing my hardest routines. My coach says it will take many months for me to get back to where I was before the quarantine. He says for every week I missed, it’s going to take three weeks of work to get that fitness back. I’ve missed about nine weeks already.
I’m trying to stay positive, but I do worry about things. I worry that I’m going to randomly catch the coronavirus and bring it home and not even know that I have it, and then my dad catches it. He’s really vulnerable right now, so obviously that would be really horrible. I worry that nothing is ever going to go back to normal and the Olympics next year will be canceled. I’m just scared that I won’t be able to get back to where I was physically. I don’t know if my body can take another four years of this, because so much mental, physical and emotional training goes into it. But there’s nothing I can do about any of this so, I guess, I will just hope for the best and believe that if I can put in the hard work, good things will happen.