Suni Lee has lots of reasons to look forward to this weekend's U.S. gymnastics championships. Her parents will watch her compete in person for the first time in three years, and the St. Paul native expects to be healthy enough to do all four events.
Ordinarily, that would be cause for celebration. But with the U.S. Olympic trials only two weeks away, and so many women in contention, Lee was more serious than gleeful after a Wednesday training session.
"It's kind of nerve-racking," she said. "Everybody is so good. We're really all just fighting for those four spots."
That fight continues Thursday through Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas, where national titles will not be an end in themselves. This year's U.S. championships — the first in two years, after the pandemic canceled the 2020 edition — serve as a springboard to the Olympic trials June 24-27 in St. Louis. A deep group of athletes remains in the chase for Olympic berths, and the nationals could begin to clarify the top candidates for the Tokyo Games.
Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles is considered a lock for one of those spots and is a heavy favorite to win her seventh U.S. all-around title. Lee and Grace McCallum of Isanti are part of the logjam of athletes behind her. Sam Mikulak is shooting for his seventh men's all-around championship, with former Gophers gymnast Shane Wiskus of Spring Park also in the hunt.
In addition to the four- person rosters for the team competitions in Tokyo, the U.S. has earned two individual women's spots for the Olympics, including one already claimed by Jade Carey. The U.S. men can earn an individual berth at the Pan Am Championships this weekend in Brazil.
For the women, performances at the nationals will be part of the selection process. The men's berths will be determined solely by the Olympic trials. All three Minnesotans are looking to take another step forward this weekend, in their final opportunity to test themselves before the trials.
"It's another chance to prove myself, show how good I am and get better," Wiskus said. "Even if it's not counted for selection, it's still a meet that matters."
Wiskus, a three-time NCAA champion, plans to do his highest-scoring routines in all six events. Lee and McCallum will do scaled-back versions on some.
Lee has been coping with tendinitis in her left ankle, which set in after she broke her foot last summer. She has competed in three meets this spring, doing only uneven bars and balance beam in each. Lee won the bars and beam titles at the American Classic and was the bars champion at the Winter Cup.
Coach Jess Graba said Lee will perform her full routines on those two events at nationals. Though Lee said Wednesday her ankle feels better, she will downgrade her floor exercise to ease the strain on her body.
Lee's parents, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, are driving from St. Paul to Fort Worth to watch her compete. Houa John Lee was paralyzed in 2019 after falling from a tree, and Graba expects Suni to get a boost from having her father there.
"She'll get a chance to see him in the stands, which will be cool," Graba said. "Our main focus at this meet is to try to stay in the top five or six, tumble and vault a little bit, and stay sharp on bars and beam."
McCallum enters the U.S. championships brimming with confidence. She recovered quickly from surgery last January to repair a fracture in her hand, finishing fourth in the all-around at the U.S. Classic two weeks ago.
Following that meet, she plunged right back into intense training. McCallum said she felt some pressure going into the U.S. Classic, because she wanted to prove she was still a top candidate for the Olympic team despite her injury. Her performance erased any doubt, and coach Sarah Jantzi said McCallum has made more strides since.
"Every day she gets a little stronger, quicker, cleaner," Jantzi said. "It's been really fun to see. Doing so well at [the U.S. Classic] got the nerves out and set her up well for nationals."
Like the other athletes preparing for the Olympic trials, McCallum, Lee and Wiskus won't spend much time reflecting on what they achieve at the championships. At this point, it's full speed ahead.
"This is another competition, another chance to see where you're at," McCallum said. "The goal is to be at your best for the Olympic trials."