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Her olympic dream on hold, teen gymnast faces other trials

The alarm on Sunisa Lee’s cellphone rang on Monday. She had set it many months ago as a joyful reminder of her departure to St. Louis for the Olympic gymnastics trials, which had been scheduled to start on June 25, when she would be a favorite to make the U.S. team for Tokyo 2020.

But with the trials and the Olympics postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the alarm couldn’t have been more deflating. Already, the past three months have been some of the most trying in Lee’s young life.

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Lee, 17, had been ecstatic that her gym, Midwest Gymnastics, was set to open on June 1 after being closed for nearly three months. But a week before she was to return, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited passionate protests in the area. Though the largest of them happened about 20 minutes away from Lee’s home in St. Paul, Minnesota, her neighborhood grocery store and Target were looted, and she and her family decided to stay indoors.

Around the same time, one of Lee’s aunts and the aunt’s husband, died within 13 days of each other. Then, only two weeks after returning to training full time, Lee twisted her left ankle on a fall from the uneven bars, relegating her to nearly the same monotonous routine she had under quarantine — mostly strength and conditioning training — until her ankle heals.

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Even with all the tumult, Lee likely will reset the alarm on her phone for next year. When it rings to signal the Olympic trials she wants to be ready in both body and spirit.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The days right before I went back to the gym were supposed to be happy ones, but the protests in Minneapolis were really crazy for everyone here. I didn’t go to the protests, but I understand where the anger is coming from and why people are trying to push for change. There weren’t any protests in our neighborhood, but one day we did have people throwing things in our yard. It was hard for me to even think about going back to the gym while all of these things were going on.

I heard that a lot of Hmong-owned businesses were looted and that was hard to handle. One of the officers there for George Floyd’s death was Hmong. So that was extra upsetting because it kind of made me feel like you’re a bad person because you’re Hmong. As a proud Hmong American, I’m trying to spread positivity about Hmong people and tell people what it’s like to be Hmong, and I felt like this was a big blow to our reputation.

When my aunt died of the coronavirus, it was very, very hard on me and my family. I knew the coronavirus was a real thing, but it really hit home when my aunt died, and it was really hard to watch my mom go through that with her sister. My aunt was in her 60s, and she was one of my favorite aunts because she was so loving and caring and was always supportive of me. She wanted the best for me, and I appreciated that. My mom would always take me to her and my uncle when I was injured. They would give me herbs and give me massages, or wrap my injured ankle to have the swelling go down. My uncle was a shaman, a Hmong healer.

I didn’t go to my aunt’s funeral because not many people were allowed there because of the coronavirus and my mom thought it would be too emotional for me and my siblings. But my whole family did say goodbye to my aunt after she was taken off the ventilator in the hospital. We were all on Zoom and my mom was talking to her in Hmong, asking my aunt to watch over us and make sure we are OK in life. It was definitely hard to see that.

Usually, Hmong funerals last several days and our whole family comes together for it. It’s a Hmong tradition to fold thousands of little paper boats with silver or gold paper that represent money the person could take into the afterlife, but we couldn’t do that because of the coronavirus. There was no time and my relatives were scared of traveling. So I folded as many little boats as I could. I took the day off from the gym so I could fold and fold. The tradition is that the boats are burned once the person is buried. I watched my aunt’s funeral on a livestream. Two weeks later, when my uncle died, it was a shock to my whole family. He had recovered from the virus, but he had a heart attack. There are still a lot of tears.

When my gym finally reopened, I was so excited, but it wasn’t like everything went back to normal. It was really fun to see my friends again, but we can’t hug each other and have to say 6 feet away from each other. We have to train in smaller groups and don’t get to see our friends as much. We have to wear a mask going into the gym and then when we go to the bathroom or take a break. We wash our hands and use sanitizer before and after every event.

The other difference was that the training was so hard! My gosh, after the first day I was so sore that I could barely walk the next day and for a week after that. Training on the equipment is very different than working out in your own at home. I definitely didn’t think it would be as painful as it has been.

The toughest part was going back on the uneven bars. I feel like most of my events came back to me pretty fast, except the bars. For me, I know that people always expect me to be perfect, so when I’m not perfect, it’s really frustrating. I’m really hard on myself and want things to work out right away. It’s difficult to find the balance if your swing is off. With the other events, I can adjust to things, but if my air awareness is off on bars, everything gets really messed up. I was really upset when I hurt my ankle on bars because now I can’t do them for another few weeks. It’s basically the same injury I had last year going into national championships.

It’s impossible not to wonder what I’d be doing now if the Olympics weren’t canceled. I know I’d be at trials right now, so close to my goal of making it to the Olympics. But I talk to my gymnastics friends and it makes me feel better because we’re all in the same boat, looking at another 12 months of training. I’ve talked to Simone Biles a lot, and it’s really nice to get to know her in this way because she was my idol and I used to see her as this intimidating gold medalist, but now she’s a friend. I tell her about how I was finally able to get my nails done and how I went shopping at the Mall of America and bought some summer clothes at PacSun and some shoes at Nike. She told me that she has another dog and is getting another house.

I feel like the energy in the world this year has been so negative. I try to remind myself that I’ll come back from my ankle injury better than ever. I’m looking forward to going to national team camp soon, but that might not be until September. I just want this year to be over. I’m so ready for 2021.

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