The date was once engraved on their memories. For nearly a year, Suni Lee and Grace McCallum knew exactly where they would be on June 5, 2020: opening the two-day women’s competition at the U.S. gymnastics championships, with a chance to take a major step toward the Tokyo Olympics.
When the day finally arrived, the world had changed so much they didn’t even notice. McCallum, of Isanti, said she “honestly kind of forgot” the dates for a meet that was canceled weeks ago. Lee, of St. Paul, still had an Olympics countdown set up on her phone, but the significance of June 5 didn’t immediately register with her.
“I was at practice, and my coach was telling me,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so crazy.’ I would have been training for Olympic trials [in mid-June]. It’s a little sad.”
McCallum and Lee both had their spring and summer schedules wiped clean by the coronavirus. As members of the U.S. national team, they were expected to be among the favorites at the national championships in Fort Worth, Texas. And at last weekend’s Olympic trials in St. Louis, where the team for Tokyo would have been named. And, perhaps, at the Olympics, now rescheduled for next summer.
The pandemic didn’t even spare their practices. In mid-March, Lee and McCallum went from high-intensity Olympic-year preparations to makeshift home workouts when Minnesota’s stay-at-home order shuttered their gyms.
After 11 weeks off the equipment, they finally got another date to remember. On June 1, McCallum’s Twin City Twisters and Lee’s Midwest Gymnastics reopened their facilities, allowing them to return to training. Things aren’t exactly back to normal, though, with meets and national team camps still on hold.
“It felt really nice to be back in the gym, to be home,” said McCallum, 17. “It felt like part of me was missing.
“But it’s weird. Normally this time of year, we’re ramping up for meets and competing. And I really miss that, because competing is my favorite thing ever. I’m so excited for next year.”
Lee and McCallum won team gold at last fall’s world championships, with Lee also taking silver on floor exercise and bronze on uneven bars. Neither has competed since.
Only two World Cup meets were completed before the worldwide spread of COVID-19 halted the season. The disappointments kept coming; Minnesota gyms were closed by executive order March 16 and the Olympics were postponed March 24.
McCallum filled the void with group Zoom workouts, led by her coaches, and individual strength and cardiovascular training regimens. As someone who took all her classes online even before the pandemic, she was able to devote six hours a day to training. The adjustment was more complicated for Lee.
She did conditioning workouts via Zoom, but coach Jess Graba said his group Zoom sessions didn’t always fit with Lee’s class schedule. She also ran to stay fit, and she could do dance moves and a few gymnastics skills in the yard. Her main concern was protecting her father, John Lee, from infection.
John Lee suffered a spinal-cord injury, broken ribs and a broken wrist in an accident last year. The danger was underscored when one of Lee’s aunts died of COVID-19.
“I stayed as active as I could, and my dad and I spent a lot of time together and got closer,” said Lee, 17. “I’ve never had a break like this, but I think I needed a little bit of a break. I just had to get into the right mind-set. My body felt really good, and I think I got healthier mentally from all of this.”
Because shutdown rules vary from state to state, some national team members didn’t miss any training time. McCallum and her coaches discussed going to a state where gyms remained open, but they ultimately stayed. That was never an option for Lee, who could not jeopardize her father’s health by traveling.
“Her dad is at high risk, and we thought it was better to play it safe,” Graba said. “We were hoping [the shutdown] would only last four to six weeks. Then it turned into eight, and more. It wasn’t great, but we treated it like a mini-vacation.”
McCallum said she benefited from the time away, too, returning to the gym stronger and fresher. Her skills came back quickly, and she was already doing half-routines after 10 days back. Lee has taken things at a slower pace.
She restarted her training with three to four hours in the gym each day, building up the toughness in her hands and ankles while regaining her skills. Lee has had to dial that back recently after an ankle injury. Both athletes are hoping national team camps will resume this fall, but there are no major meets through the end of the year.
The Olympics, which once seemed so close, are more than 12 months away. Lee was saddened at first by the postponement, but she now is grateful her father has a year to get healthy enough to travel to Tokyo. McCallum has adopted a more positive outlook, too.
“I have more time to improve,” she said. “I can work on things and upgrade on certain events. I really think it’s a blessing in disguise.”
In the meantime, it’s a blessing just to have actual practices back on their calendars.
“I couldn’t even walk the next day after the first workout,” Lee said. “And I can’t hug my friends because of coronavirus, and we have to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. It’s weird, but it’s OK. I’m just really, really happy to be back.”