Sunisa Lee felt she could handle the physical pain. On the eve of the U.S. gymnastics championships in August, she still was recovering from a stress fracture in her left ankle, but some small adjustments to her routines left her confident she could still perform her best.
Lee wasn’t nearly as certain she could weather an emotional blow that came out of nowhere. The day before she left her St. Paul home for the meet in Kansas City, Mo., her father, Houa John Lee, fell from a tree while helping a neighbor trim branches. Instead of driving his family down I-35 to cheer for his daughter, he lay paralyzed from the chest down in a hospital bed, with a spinal cord injury, fractured ribs and a broken wrist.
“My first two practices were not the best,” Sunisa Lee said. “He was having surgery at the exact same time. I told my mom to text [coach] Jess [Graba] when it was over.
“I was really worried because he was in such critical condition. It was really hard. But I pulled through the rest of the week.”
Lee did much more than simply pull through. She stunned the gymnastics world by finishing second in the all-around, behind megastar Simone Biles, and winning the U.S. championship on uneven bars. That made the 16-year-old a contender for the six-woman U.S. team for next month’s world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
John Lee remains hospitalized, but he was well enough to give his daughter a pep talk Wednesday before she left for the team selection camp in Sarasota, Fla. Sunisa is among 15 women who will participate in a three-day camp that begins Saturday. Grace McCallum of Isanti, who finished third in the all-around at the U.S. championships, also is among the top competitors.
Lee and her father both will chase big goals in the coming weeks. Making the team for the world championships would put Sunisa among the favorites to represent the U.S. at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If John’s recovery remains on track, he is expected to be released from the Minneapolis VA Medical Center on Oct. 9, right in the middle of the world championships.
“My dad is a really positive, outgoing, confident person,” Sunisa Lee said. “Right before I competed on the first day at nationals, I FaceTimed my mom, and I got to talk to him. He told me not to focus on him. He wanted me to just worry about myself because I’d been training so long for this.
“He was so proud of me after nationals. And he’s super excited about [the world team selection]. To be in this position, it’s super cool. This is something I’ve dreamed about, but you’re never sure it’s actually going to happen.”
A junior at South St. Paul High School, Lee has trained at Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada since she took up the sport at age 6. She has quickly moved toward the top of a very deep group of U.S. women in her first year of senior-level competition.
At the U.S. championships, her performance drew raves from the likes of Olympic champion Nastia Liukin, who said Lee’s bars routine was good enough to win an Olympic gold medal.
Few knew how tough Lee had to be that weekend. Already dealing with the pain of the stress fracture, which had cut into her training time, she was trying to get frequent updates on her father’s condition during the two practice days before the meet began.
John Lee came through the surgery well, helping Sunisa keep her mind clear on the first night of competition. Though she missed her parents and five siblings, who had planned a family vacation around the meet, she bested everyone except Biles.
“I wasn’t sure about her mind-set,” said Graba, her coach. “When there’s any downtime, your mind starts to wander. I wasn’t even looking at scores. I just wanted to make sure she stayed focused on competing.”
Lee’s surprising performance generated lots of buzz on social media, adding more pressure for the second night. It started on a rough note; a painful landing on her warmup vault dropped her to her knees.
She shook it off, stayed on her feet for the vault that counted and moved to her specialty — the bars — for her next event. Lee’s routine had the highest degree of difficulty in the meet, but she sailed through it, earning a score of 15.050 to win the event title.
Since the championships, Lee has juggled school, training and visits to her father at the hospital. Her family’s life now revolves around caring for him; her mother, Yeev Thoj, feeds him, and older brother Jonah stays in his room overnight. The family is raising money at gofundme.com to help cover John Lee’s lost wages and medical care.
Sunisa Lee is believed to be the first Hmong-American to make a U.S. national team in gymnastics. She and John Lee both are well-known, popular figures in the local Hmong community, which is lending plenty of emotional support.
Sunisa also has become something of a star at the hospital, where she said her father “brags about me to all the nurses.” Sunday, the all-around portion of the selection camp will be shown live on YouTube, allowing John to see his daughter compete.
Just like Sunisa, John Lee also is working toward a major life goal next summer.
“We don’t know when he’ll be able to walk again,” Sunisa said. “But I hope it’s soon. He wants to be able to go to the Olympics with me.”