‘An enormous second for all of us’: U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee reps her household and neighborhood on the Olympics

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JOHN LEE IS ready for his daughter to name. On a Friday afternoon in late June, he is sitting in a wheelchair in a lodge foyer in St. Louis along with his companion, Yeev Thoj, and 4 of their six kids. In a couple of hours, their 18-year-old daughter, Sunisa, will compete within the Olympic gymnastics trials, the place she is favored to safe a spot on the U.S. crew and grow to be the primary Hmong American to characterize the U.S. within the Video games.

“She’s calling!” John says, and the group quiets as he picks up the decision. Yeev leans in shut. 9-year-old Fortunate squeezes in.

“You prepared?” John asks.

“I am nervous,” Sunisa — “Suni” to most household, buddies and gymnastics followers — says on FaceTime. “I believe I will throw up.”

“Calm,” Yeev responds.

“You are not doing this for no one else anymore,” John says. “Not to your buddies, not for the Hmong neighborhood. You’re doing this for your self now. OK?” He pauses. “Take pleasure in,” he says. “That is your solely objective. You bought this.”

“I acquired this,” Suni echoes.

John’s pep talks have grow to be one thing of legend inside elite gymnastics circles, particularly since a fall from a ladder in 2019 left him paralyzed from the chest down and unable to attend his daughter’s meets. That is when Suni started sharing the content material of their FaceTime conversations and speaking publicly about how her dad’s phrases calm her premeet jitters.

“I attempt to be assured for her,” John says, “however inside there’s nerves.”

The Lees have relied on one another for power much more than typical up to now two years — by John’s accident and restoration, the Olympic postponement and the demise of shut relations throughout the pandemic. In St. Louis, Suni will carry the assist and expectations of her household and Hmong individuals world wide. And she’s going to compete realizing it’s the closing time her household shall be within the stands to cheer her on as an elite gymnast.

Due to COVID-19, Suni will journey to Tokyo with out them, and within the fall, she’s going to go away her supportive residence in St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend Auburn College in Alabama, 1,200 miles away. It doesn’t matter what occurs, trials marks the tip of an extended, troublesome highway towards the Tokyo Olympics, the start of Suni’s life as an grownup and an opportunity to make her personal title alongside the best gymnast within the historical past of the game.

GROWING UP, SUNI’S bond together with her dad was solid by motion. John cherished to climb and flip as a baby and was a pure athlete who excelled at sports activities in highschool. A favourite household video exhibits John and Suni throwing synchronized backflips off an outsized lounge chair at a Florida seaside when Suni was 8. In one other, they backflip into the deep finish of a lodge pool.

John typically marvels at how alike he and Suni are, how she shares his fierce competitiveness and drive in a approach none of her siblings do, although he’s not her organic father. John was just lately divorced with two youngsters, Jonah and Shyenne, when he met Yeev and her 2-year-old daughter, Suni. Suni is just 12 days youthful than Shyenne, and lots of of their classmates consider they’re twins. John and Yeev even have three kids collectively: Evionn, Fortunate and Noah. It was Suni’s determination, even though John and Yeev have by no means legally married, to alter her final title to Lee.

“She wished his final title,” Yeev says.

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One of many Lee household’s favourite residence movies exhibits the longer term Olympic gymnast and her father backflipping on a Florida seaside.

Suni was 12 when she gained her first huge guess together with her dad. As she ready to compete in a high-level meet for pre-elite gymnasts, John guess her that if she gained first place within the all-around, he would purchase her the iPhone she wished. When she did, he offered an previous truck he’d fastened as much as pay for it.

John has at all times had a eager sense of how finest to encourage her, learn how to apply simply the correct amount of strain at simply the appropriate time. “When Suni began competing as an elite, I traveled together with her nearly all over the place,” John says. “I at all times talked to her earlier than the competitors, and typically I would be exhausting on her and she or he’d get mad. When Suni’s mad, she focuses a little bit higher.”

However as Suni climbed the worldwide ranks and the strain mounted, John’s talks shifted in tone. “Now she’s used to me telling her to go on the market and have enjoyable,” he says.

Then, simply earlier than her first senior nationals, every part modified.


TWO DAYS BEFORE Suni was set to go away for her first senior nationwide championships, on Aug. 4, 2019, John fell from a ladder whereas serving to a buddy minimize a tree department. He broke his proper wrist and several other ribs and injured his spinal wire, paralyzing his physique beneath his chest. He remembers waking up within the hospital and being informed he was unable to make use of his legs.

Suni contemplated skipping nationals. However John satisfied her to go to Kansas Metropolis together with her coach. On the primary day of competitors, he FaceTimed from his ICU mattress and informed her it did not matter how she completed, simply that she did her finest. She would at all times be No. 1 in his eyes, he mentioned.

Suni, then 16, has mentioned she arrived in Kansas Metropolis feeling unsettled and unfocused. She did not point out her dad’s damage to anybody. However as a result of she knew he was watching on TV, she competed for him. And he or she was stellar. She completed behind solely Simone Biles within the all-around and took gold on uneven bars. It was her greatest efficiency to this point.

The following month, she was named to the U.S. crew that took gold on the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, the place she gained particular person medals on uneven bars and ground. As John, a Navy veteran, started working towards regaining his independence in a restoration unit on the Minneapolis VA hospital, his daughter grew to become a favourite to make the 2020 Olympic crew.

John has not regained feeling beneath his chest and makes use of a wheelchair. However he has not given up hope of sooner or later standing or taking steps. He just lately had a tool that may stimulate motion in his legs surgically implanted in his again. “Hopefully sooner or later, if I’ve upper-body power, with the usage of an exoskeleton, I can perform a little strolling,” John says. “That is my objective.”

Watching John set small, achievable objectives on the trail towards bigger, long-term ones motivated Suni. “She at all times says she is aware of it is tougher for me to be the place I am at now,” John says, “and it conjures up her. I do know it is exhausting for her to be in her place, too.”

Watching Suni work towards her objectives helps John preserve occurring robust days, too. “Earlier than my damage, I used to be energetic and athletic and I fastened every part round the home,” John says. “I am unable to do any of that now, and it is exhausting. However once I get so offended at myself, I have a look at Sunisa and take into consideration what she has needed to undergo to get to the place she’s at, and she or he conjures up me.”

“THAT’S JUST SOME of our household,” Shyenne says as she zooms in on a photograph. Within the picture, roughly 150 individuals, all carrying matching navy T-shirts, pose in a lush, tree-lined discipline. Just a few maintain canines or cradle infants. “That is me. There’s Evionn … Fortunate … There’s our grandma,” she says. “Suni wasn’t there as a result of she needed to observe.”

The picture was taken on the primary day of an annual household summer season tenting journey that began in honor of the household’s patriarch, Cher Yee Lee, after he died in 2008. “My dad got here to this nation and did not have an training or perceive the language, and he labored two jobs to assist 11 youngsters,” John says. “That is what we do for him.”

John was 7 when his dad and mom introduced him and his siblings to the U.S. from Laos, one in every of a number of nations the place the Hmong, an ethnic group of between 6 million and 12 million individuals, reside. John’s father was a Hmong soldier who fought alongside the U.S. navy throughout the Vietnam Warfare in what’s now often known as the Secret Warfare. It was night on St. Patrick’s Day, 1979, when the household arrived in St. Paul. “It was tremendous chilly and we did not have jackets,” John says. “We had by no means ridden in a automobile. We would by no means seen lights. We did not have electrical energy in Laos. It was the primary time I ate dinner at a desk.”

Yeev, who can also be from a big Hmong household, was 12 when she arrived in St. Paul together with her mom and older sister from Laos in 1987. “We went to a grocery retailer, and I believed it was magic. Vanilla ice cream in a field. Starburst. And ladies wore denims as an alternative of skirts. I used to be so excited to put on denims,” she says whereas carrying a pair of stonewashed denims.

Right this moment, greater than 300,000 Hmong individuals reside within the U.S., largely in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Twin Cities boasts the biggest and most organized Hmong inhabitants in a metropolitan space, and John jokes that he and Yeev are associated to most of them and related to all of them.

When Yeev had her first baby, she named her Sunisa after her favourite Thai cleaning soap opera actress and gave her a Hmong center title. Historically, an individual’s Hmong title precedes their American title, however to avoid wasting her daughter a lifetime of mispronunciations, Yeev — whose title is pronounced “Yeng” — flipped the script. She additionally makes use of solely Suni’s center preliminary, N, on paperwork.

Like John, Yeev was a highschool athlete and wished her daughter to take part in sports activities although “it wasn’t a part of our tradition,” she says. When a buddy noticed Suni doing somersaults on the park and recommended Yeev take her to a gymnastics class for toddlers, she signed her up the following week. “Our elders thought sports activities was a waste of time,” John says.

Earlier than the pandemic, John and Yeev deliberate to take your entire household to Thailand and Laos after the Olympics. “We actually wished the children to see life there,” John says. “It is not as straightforward in Laos as it’s right here, the place they’ve every part. Particularly Sunisa and Shyenne, I wished to take them earlier than they go off to school within the fall.”

As Suni has grow to be one of many world’s finest all-around gymnasts, she has felt the burden of representing her household and Hmong individuals world wide.

“Lots of people do not perceive Hmong individuals or that we went by a very tough life to get right here to america,” John provides. “Many teams of Asians get lumped collectively. Did you see the film with Clint Eastwood, ‘Gran Torino’? It was based mostly on the Hmong individuals, and even nonetheless nobody is aware of. Perhaps due to Sunisa, individuals may know us.”

AFTER THE OLYMPICS had been postponed in March 2020, Suni discovered herself at residence all day every single day for the primary time since she was a child. The fitness center the place she spent 30 hours or extra every week shut down, and she or he questioned whether or not she wished to proceed for one more 12 months. She questioned if she would nonetheless be capable of compete her routines after taking a lot day without work.

However when her dad and mom requested her, “Why would you stop now?” she did not have a great reply. She owed it to herself and her years of coaching to proceed, so she adopted her dad’s instance and set small, achievable objectives on the trail towards bigger, long-term ones.

Then, shortly after Suni returned to her fitness center in June, she broke her left foot. That summer season, her aunt and uncle contracted COVID-19. First, her aunt, her mom’s sister and one in every of Suni’s greatest supporters, died. Her uncle initially recovered however died 13 days after his spouse from a coronary heart assault. “That was the toughest time,” John says.

Suni could not attend both funeral and needed to say goodbye to her aunt over Zoom. She missed her uncle, a Hmong shaman who gave her natural teas and helped heal her accidents. Yeev knew her daughter was hurting bodily and emotionally, so when Suni got here residence sore and bruised from a exercise, Yeev utilized Hmong rubs and massaged her muscle tissue like Suni’s uncle as soon as would.

All of this passed off towards the backdrop of George Floyd’s homicide in Minneapolis and months of protests down the road from the household’s residence in St. Paul. As anti-Asian hate crimes rose across the nation, John and Yeev suggested Suni and her siblings to not go exterior alone. Suni leaned on her sister much more. “We at all times find time for one another,” Shyenne says.

The sisters acquired their driver’s licenses. They did one another’s nails. John says that Shyenne is aware of the appropriate factor to say — or not say — when her sister is pressured. After Dad’s pep talks, Suni typically texts Shyenne for sister-level actual speak. “I preserve her life from being solely gymnastics,” Shyenne says. “I preserve her social life energetic. I preserve her regular.”

When she returned to competitors this winter, Suni appeared each bit the gymnast she was pre-pandemic. Her bar routine, thought of probably the most troublesome on this planet, improved each meet. Together with her dad within the stands for the primary time since his accident, she completed second within the all-around, behind Biles, and took gold on uneven bars on the U.S. championships in early June.

“It has been a tricky 12 months, however I am tremendous pleased with myself,” Suni says. “After COVID and quarantine, I used to be unmotivated as a result of we had a lot day without work and I felt I wasn’t adequate anymore. However now I have been rather a lot higher mentally, and you’ll see it in my gymnastics.”


“WE’RE GOING THROUGH a tunnel. Everybody, maintain your breath!” Yeev is navigating the household’s white minivan by rush-hour site visitors towards The Dome at America’s Middle in downtown St. Louis. Trials start in lower than an hour.

As Yeev pulls right into a parking spot exterior the sector, she and the children transfer with precision. She opens the van’s again hatch and retrieves John’s wheelchair. Evionn assists her in reattaching its wheels. Shyenne pushes it to the entrance passenger door and helps her dad out of his seat and into the chair. Fortunate grabs the handles, spins the chair 180 levels and factors his dad towards the venue. “I push him all over,” Fortunate says.

Inside, they cut up up. Yeev and three of the children go to the second row in entrance of the ground train. Due to his wheelchair, John has to sit down in an accessible seating space on the second degree. Fortunate watches from his lap.

John is overjoyed to observe his daughter compete once more in particular person, to know that she will search for when nerves strike and catch his assured gaze. “However it’s not the identical,” John says. “With my damage, I am unable to be down there for her. With my lung capability, I am unable to scream too loud. There’s a variety of issues I am unable to do. I inform Fortunate, ‘You must scream loud for me.'”

In the course of the meet, Suni nails the perfect bar routine of her profession. She is flawless on beam, and her ground routine is a crowd favourite. Shyenne screams at every caught touchdown. “I really did hear my sister scream once I was on ground,” Suni says. “I heard her once more on beam and acquired distracted. She’s so loud. I find it irresistible.”

On the second day of trials, Suni is even higher. Her all-around rating tops the day, making her the primary gymnast to earn a better single-day all-around rating than Biles in additional than eight years. Biles remains to be the heavy favourite to repeat as all-around champion in Tokyo, however Suni proved it’s potential to beat the game’s best star, and on the appropriate day, she has the routines to do it.

When the Olympic crew is introduced, Suni seems into the stands and sees her dad and mom, tears streaming down their faces, and hears Shyenne shout her title. “I really feel actually relieved and really emotional,” she says after the meet. “It is so surreal to say I’m an Olympian. … Hopefully once I return to the lodge, I will speak to my household.”

A WEEK AND a half earlier than Suni leaves for Tokyo, John and Yeev arrange a block occasion on their avenue in St. Paul. They announce the occasion on Fb, grasp banners and promote greater than 1,000 autographed Staff Sunisa T-shirts to boost spending cash for her journey. Neighbors, family and friends cease by all through the afternoon. They write effectively needs for Suni on slips of paper and grasp them from a clothesline.

Suni would not attend the occasion due to COVID-19 protocols. However earlier that afternoon, the household holds a small, non-public send-off at their residence with a couple of Hmong elders. “We wished a conventional Hmong celebration,” John says, “however we modified it a little bit bit.”

Historically, every member of the family would tie a white string round Suni’s wrist and make a want. “As an alternative, we acquired one lengthy string, one elder tied it round her wrist to represent the connection, and all of us held on to it and made needs,” John says. Suni needed to minimize off the string earlier than observe. However she’s going to carry the desires together with her to Tokyo.

The U.S. is favored to win gold within the crew competitors on July 27. Suni is a favourite to take gold on bars and will medal within the all-around, beam and ground as effectively. If she makes the beam closing, she’s going to compete on Aug. 3, sooner or later earlier than the second anniversary of John’s accident.

Though it begins at 3:45 a.m. native time in St. Paul, Yeev and Shyenne shall be on textual content alert, and John says he shall be prepared along with his closing FaceTime pep speak of the Video games. It will likely be maybe the final time his little lady might want to borrow his confidence or hear him say, “You have acquired this.”

“It is actual now,” John says. “After Tokyo, she’s performed and she or he’ll go off to school, and I will not be a part of it anymore. Her life will change.

“It is a huge second for all of us.”