At its heart, gymnastics is a sport about control. Under the searing eye of a judge and amidst a small haze of chalk dust and sweat, a gymnast has to control her body with an astonishing level of precision because the smallest deviation from a routine — too loose of a grip or a little bit too much rotation — can cause her to fall not just onto the mat below, but also down the scoreboard.
This is the world that Sunisa Lee grew up in. Now a 17-year-old, three-time U.S. champion, one-time world champion and a favorite to be on the United States 2020 Olympic team, Lee started her gymnastics career when she was 6 years old. Actually, she said it started even earlier than that.
“When I was younger, I was always jumping around and doing flips,” Lee said. “My dad would spy on me and stuff, and neither of us knew what we were doing, but then my mom got in contact with one of the coaches, [...] I had a tryout and then I’ve just been here ever since.”
As she got a little bit older, Lee’s coaches in Minnesota began to notice that she was good. Like, really good. They started preparing her to compete at elite-level meets which are for athletes who may have the potential to compete internationally. But early on, Lee’s goal was just to get to college.
“Being committed to Auburn has been one of my biggest dreams for a long time,” she said. “I knew that if I made it to college, my life would be safe. But then I realized that I could be an Olympic hopeful; then it started getting serious.”
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When she was 14, Lee verbally committed to a gymnastics scholarship with the Tigers. This decision was made, in part, because of a close familial tie she had with Auburn’s program. Her coach — Jess Graba — and Auburn’s coach — Jeff Graba — are twin brothers.
“Suni had offers from pretty much every college so she could have gone anywhere,” Jess said. “I think she felt a comfort zone with Jeff, just because he’s my brother, and I think she feels like it won’t be a big transition for her.”
However, even with a college plan nailed down and a childhood spent perfecting a sport that necessitates control, Lee has had to spend the last year and a half of her life learning how to deal with the big things she can’t control.
In September 2019, on the day before she was set to leave for her first senior U.S. World Championships trial, Lee learned that her dad had fallen out of a tree while helping a neighbor and was paralyzed from the waist down. Her first reaction — like anybody’s — was to not go to the competition so she could stay and support her dad.
“I wasn’t even going to go,” she said. “I told my dad I wasn’t going to go, but he was like, you have to go, you’ve been working for this.”
Her dad told her coach that she had to go, so Lee decided that she would compete for her dad. She said nothing else mattered.
“It doesn’t matter if I get top two or wherever,” she said. “I’m just going to compete. Obviously, it was really hard on me, and I think I ended up doing pretty good.”
Lee did better than pretty good.
She placed second in the competition’s all-around category, and the only woman who beat her was Simone Biles. Yes, that Simone Biles: the one who has won more Olympic medals than any other American gymnast in history.
But even after the trials, Lee said her dad’s injury kept popping into her head. She described a time when he had to go into surgery during one of her practices.
“The whole time I was just thinking about my dad,” she said. “Practices were kind of stressful because, during one of the practices, he was going into surgery, and like, obviously that’s a meta one in the back of my head.”
Jess said that he could see the effect on Lee after the trials.
“By the end of 2019, she was really struggling with the energy level just because after [World Championships] and everything, then she had to come home and actually deal with it, you know, face it day-to-day,” he said. “That was hard.”
But despite the physical rigor of a gymnastic practice, Lee said the gym had always been a place where she felt safe.
“Being in the gym was literally like my second home and like the only place that I could get away from, like, reality,” she said.
So, even though her dad was always in the back of her head, Jess said he started to see Lee getting back to her old self in the early months of 2020.
But then the world shut down.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started and uncertainty around the virus was widespread, Jess had to close the gym for safety reasons. Suddenly, the girl who had spent a huge chunk of her life at the gym was stuck in the house.
“When things shut down, I think that was a big shock because you couldn’t train for so many weeks,” Jess said. “And I think the gym is kind of her home away from home and her safe spot.”
Even after they were able to reopen with new safety guidelines, Lee continued to be surrounded by things she had little to no control over. In the spring, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed — the first time this has ever happened in the Games’ history. In the summer, Lee broke her foot and was again restricted to basic exercises. Around that time, some of the largest protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd took place 20 minutes from her house in Minnesota.
Then, in the span of a few months, Lee lost both an aunt and an uncle to COVID-19.
“It just felt like it was one thing after another,” she said. “I was, like, jeez, how much can I take? It was just so stressful, and I started to get down on myself because there’s just really nothing that I could do about it. And that was the worst thing because it’s not something that I could have controlled.”
But apparently, Lee can take a lot. Because even though this 17-year-old girl has suffered injuries and loss, even though she’s spent the better part of a year locked out of the place she felt safe and focused, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
She still smiles, even if it’s over Zoom, and she still laughs even if the audio quality in an office at the gym isn’t great.
And now, with a slate of gymnastics competitions on the horizon — distant though they may be — Lee said she’s starting to get that good kind of nervous feeling again. She’s started posting more and more bar routines and practices on her social media accounts again. She’s also only a few months away from graduating high school and only a few more away from coming to Auburn.
Other than, you know, competing in the Olympics, Lee said one of the things she’s most excited about for her next four years at Auburn is being able to have more of a normal life.
“I think I just wanted to have a real college experience and to be able to have fun,” she said. “Not saying I don’t have fun now but being an elite gymnast it’s so limited because you’re always in the gym, and that’s all I focus on. I’m already not, like, a normal teenager; I don’t go to football games and all that stuff. But when I get to college, it feels like it’s going to be so much more fun, I guess, and like, free.”
But Lee is a world champion gymnast who has spent more than a decade perfecting the control she has over her body.
She’s one of the best in the world at letting go at the exact right moment to execute a seamless bar change or rotating just enough to stick an unshaking landing. So even though she’s excited about a chance at more freedom in college, she’s not even sure what she’ll do with it.
“I don’t even know,” she said. “I guess I’ll just have to wait till I get there.”
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