A day before Sunisa Lee was set to leave for her first senior U.S. championships, she got devastating news: her dad, John, had been helping a friend trim a tree, fallen and was paralyzed.
No one would have blamed the American, just 16-years-old, if she had chosen to stay home or if thoughts of her father distracted her in gymnastics competition days later in Kansas City. But Lee was able to put it all aside, using her dad as inspiration en route to a stellar second place finish behind only four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles.
“I just wanted to do the best I could for my dad because I knew he was watching,” she told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. That performance, she says, helped her believe that she was capable of more than she thought.
“I think I kind of proved to myself and to everybody that I can be in the running going into the Olympics, even with my dad's injury,” Lee said.
Help from her friends
She credits her friends on the national team, many of whom she only gets to see at the monthly camps and major competitions, with providing a much needed refuge during that difficult time.
“[I] would just hang out with my friends because I haven't seen them for so long. And whenever I'm with them, I just get so happy and I forget about everything else,” said Lee. “I love them so much.”
Those same friendships are helping her now, as she finds her biggest dream in the sport she’s done since age 6 rescheduled.
“I’ve been talking to Morgan [Hurd], of course, Laurie [Hernandez], Simone,” Lee said. “We all keep in touch because we’re all going through a hard time now. We like to talk with each other, and we’re always there for each other.”
New routine, new schedule
Lee admits that the stay-at-home orders in place throughout the United States have resulted in her longest break from the sport ever, but she’s doing what she can from home, including four mile runs – a first for the three-time World medallist.
“I never used to do runs, so the first time was very hard on me,” she said with a laugh, adding that her at-home regime also includes some gymnastics.
“I’ll do some random flips outside, just to make sure I can still do flips.”
Getting back to flipping is something she thinks about often, eager to start working her way back into form. When she does, with the new dates of Tokyo 2020 in mind, she sees an advantage to having felt what the pressures of an Olympic year bring.
2021 will also provide a rarity in gymnastics: an Olympic year with a World Gymnastics Championships.
Originally, Lee, who will graduate high school next spring before joining the University of Auburn women’s gymnastics team, had hoped, if all had gone as planned, to take some time off after this summer’s Olympics and then return to training.
“After the Olympics, I really wanted to kinda take a couple of months off to focus on myself and do what I was able to do the past like 10 years because I've been training. I was hoping to come back after that and train for the 2021 Worlds,” Lee explained.
Now, with just 70 days separating the Tokyo closing ceremony and the start of the Worlds in Copenhagen, Lee isn’t so sure.
“I feel like it depends on how the Olympics go,” she said. “I don’t know if I would want to go for it in the all-around or if I just want to do bars or something like that.”
A new outlook
Regardless of what Lee’s 2021 schedule ends up being, she says her father’s experience has given her perspective outside her sport.
“It kind of made me realize that there’s a lot more to life than just gymnastics,” she admitted.
Plus, for Lee, Olympic postponement provides another year for both she and her father to improve.
“He is getting a lot stronger,” she said of her dad. “We’ve been talking about the Olympics a lot, and he said the same thing [my coach] Jess [Graba] did. I couldn’t control it, so there’s not a lot to be sad about.
“And it just gives me another year. He’s very supportive, and he’s still looking forward to going to the Olympics, hopefully.”
And so is she.