By Blythe Lawrence
STUTTGART, Germany, Oct. 10 — She had something, Jess Graba could see that. But as he watched six-year-old Sunisa Lee do her self-taught back handsprings on his floor at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, Minn., on that day 10 years ago, Graba couldn’t be sure he was looking at one of the next great stars of the sport.
“She had a lot of energy. She was just joyful, bouncing around. Clearly, she was talented, but mainly she seemed like a great kid,” he said. In looking for a gym for their wild, furniture-climbing oldest daughter, John Lee and Yeev Thoj had turned to a family friend who coached at Midwest. Bring her in, the friend advised. So they did.
Six-year-old Lee’s playground experiments had yielded her some skills, but they needed refining. “Everything was kind of crazy, so we kind of had to start over,” Graba recalled. “But she was fearless, so that helped.”
Years before she showed herself as an Olympic contender at her first World Gymnastics Championships this week, Sunisa Lee proved herself to her coach. “There are lots of talented kids, but work ethic and a good attitude, being willing to put in those hours and willing to fail a lot, that’s what matters,” said Graba, who trained alongside four-time U.S. champion John Roethlisberger during the 1990s. “A lot of it is the head and the attitude and the work ethic. If you don’t have those, the talent doesn’t always win out.”
There was more than just the rough-hewn, playground style of her self-taught skills to overcome. The Lees lived on the other side of St. Paul, a 45-minute drive with traffic, and Graba knew the commute would be a hassle. There was also the fact that they were Hmong, and Hmong children were often encouraged to focus on studying rather than sports.
Lee’s father saw things differently. A high-level college soccer player who could do standing backflips, John Lee understood how sports could enrich a person’s life. An early advocate for his daughter focusing her attention on gymnastics as well as school, John Lee decided that he would do everything he could to help Sunisa fulfill her potential, so long as she was happy to keep reaching higher.
And she was. Lee loved learning new skills and shot through the levels quickly, and was first invited to a junior national developmental camp when she was nine. A year later, at her first U.S. Classic, Lee won the Hopes category, the division for the youngest competitors.
She was on her way, though the road to the elite level was paved with small sacrifices. In the summers, when he began his work as an engineer for Cummings Diesel at 5:30 a.m., John Lee would take Sunisa to work with him, and she’d nap in his office while he worked. During his break, John would run her to the gym so she could begin practice, then return to work. Later on, when training become more all-inclusive and the costs of travel to competitions and camps rose, John and Yeev organized fundraisers, and the St. Paul Hmong community turned out en masse to support their girl.
The investment has paid off. In her first year at the senior level, Lee has been the breakout star of the rising generation of U.S. gymnasts. After overcoming a stress fracture in her ankle that limited her to two events at the U.S. Classic in July, she blazed through the U.S. Championships, finishing second all-around to Simone Biles and solidifying herself as a favorite for the World team.
At the World team selection camp in Florida a month later, Lee was again second in the all-around, behind Biles by a mere 0.35, the closest anyone has come to four-time Olympic gold medalist in ages. Biles herself took note. “I’m really impressed with how she’s been doing,” she said. “She’s only 16 years old, and I think there’s more to come for her, so I’m really excited.”
Expectations are enormous on the world stage, and Lee has worked as hard at dealing with the pressure as she has on the elegant, thoughtfully crafted routines that showcase her style and skills. In the chaos of the mixed zone, among reporters who clamor to ask questions and hang on her every word, she’s remained as poised as she has out on the field of play.
“I’ve learned to just keep calm and just be myself,” she said. “I don’t have to be perfect and I can just do my own thing. It’s not going to be the end of the world if I do terrible,” she added.
“She gets nervous, but she just doesn’t want to let people down,” Graba said. “So she works really hard, and maybe puts more pressure on herself than she should. She’s just a normal kid. But she handles things pretty well. She’s learned how to handle it better. Instead of beating herself up for mistakes made in the past, she’s learning from mistakes.”
In Stuttgart, Lee is dealing with more than the normal pressure to succeed. On August 4, the day before she was scheduled to leave for the U.S. Championships, John Lee fell from a ladder while helping a neighbor cut a tree branch in his backyard, breaking his neck and damaging his spinal cord. Lee delayed her departure for the U.S. Championships, and finally she and Graba made the seven-hour drive from St. Paul to Kansas City, Mo.
While her father was in surgery to align his spinal cord, Lee was training for the chance of a gymnast’s lifetime. It was what her father would have wanted, she told herself. At the end of a particularly grueling practice, Graba was able to give her good news: John Lee had come through the surgery. Three days later, with her father watching from his hospital bed, Sunisa Lee won the all-around silver.
As Lee began competing in Stuttgart, her father was still in the VA hospital in St. Paul, beginning what will be an extensive rehabilitation process. But on Wednesday morning, John Lee was released from the hospital and able to watch his daughter compete in the All-around final from the comfort of his own home. He is currently confined to a wheelchair and paralyzed from the waist down, and whether he will walk again is a question that will be answered in time. His love and support of his daughter has been never been stronger. “He brags to the nurses about me,” Sunisa Lee said with a smile. And before she competes, he makes sure to let her know he’s watching.
“I actually Facetimed my dad just before this. He was super excited and he was telling me about how everyone’s watching, and he even bought a new computer to watch for some reason. He’s really happy,” Lee said following women’s team prelims, where she qualified to the all-around final in second place with 57.166 points.
There will be a lot to process when the World Championships ends and Lee goes home again. Graba, for his part, will be happy to give her several days to play with things in the gym before serious training for the Olympic year begins.
His philosophy for his protegee at Worlds has been that no matter where Lee ends up, things have turned out for the best. “If it’s good and everything comes together, then you have medals and you feel good,” Graba said. “If it doesn’t go well, then we have lessons and we can learn from them, so the experience is valuable as well. Either way, it’s good.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover some of the expenses associated with John Lee’s recovery. It can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-support-john-with-his-healing-journey