Sunisa Lee’s success follows family tragedy


Sunisa Lee's success follows family tragedy

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STUTTGART, Germany — Competing at a world championships is nerve-wracking, especially for the first time, and Sunisa Lee has had no shortage of people giving her encouragement.

Her teammates. The U.S. coaches. National team director Tom Forster.

The biggest boost, though, came from someone thousands of miles away.

“(My Dad) FaceTimed me before the meet, and he was giving me a pep talk. He was super excited,” Lee said Saturday night, after she finished second only to Simone Biles in qualifying at the world gymnastics championships.

“He’s doing a lot better,” she added. “He should also be going home maybe next week.”

Balance is as vital to gymnasts as the air they breathe. It’s what allows them to do skills that defy physics and the ordinary person’s imagination. It also can mean the difference between standing on a podium or sprawling across the floor.

For Lee, however, balance has taken on a different, weightier meaning in the last two months.

On Aug. 4, Lee’s father, Houa John, fell off a ladder while he was helping a friend trim a tree. The accident injured his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down initially. John Lee also broke his right wrist and fractured several ribs.  

The accident occurred just before Sunisa Lee was to leave for the national championships in Kansas City. With her head in Kansas City and her heart back home in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee went ahead and competed, finishing second to Biles in the all-around and establishing herself as a medal contender for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

Lee was eager to return home after nationals and spend time with her father and family. But with the world championships less than two months away, and knowing the pride and joy her gymnastics has brought her dad, there was no time to take off from training.

So she juggled her workouts with visits to her father, who remains at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, while also helping her mother care for her five siblings. There was school, too, since Lee just started her junior year in high school.

“It’s been really hard,” Lee acknowledged. “I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of things so I can go see my Dad and getting training in as well and starting school and stuff like that. So it was hard to get the schedule worked out because there’s been so many things happening.”  

The composure Lee has shown so far at worlds gives little hint of her personal turmoil or the growing expectations on her.

Despite a fall on balance beam, she posted the second-highest individual score in qualifying, a 57.166. She and teammate Jade Carey tied for second on floor exercise, but Lee got the tiebreak – and the spot in the event final – because her execution score was four-tenths higher than Carey’s.

But it was on uneven bars that Lee truly shined.

She appears almost weightless as she floats between bars, one skill flowing seamlessly into another. Most impressive was that she continuously alternated between the high and low bars, doing only one skill before switching to the other bar. Few gymnasts can manage that because it requires an inordinate amount of control and focus, and Lee’s difficulty score of 6.4 reflects the challenge of doing all of these skills back to back.

If she loses her rhythm, there is no cover. If she gets off-balance, there is no time to reset.

Lee’s score of 15.0 was third-highest on uneven bars. The gymnasts ahead of her, Nina Derwael and Daria Spiridonova, are both world champions on the event.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Forster said.

“She’s fit in really well with the other girls,” he added of Lee, the only world championships rookie on the U.S. team. “They’ve taken her under their wing … (and) the morale with her on the team has been really up and positive. So it’s been fun to see how she fits in.

“And, of course, her gymnastics are beautiful.”

It’s not easy, balancing life’s highest highs and lowest lows. But Lee and her family are managing. 

Lee said her father remains paralyzed from the waist down, but “everything else is healing pretty well.” He has already vowed that if Lee makes the Olympic team, he’ll be there in Tokyo to cheer his daughter on.

After everything that’s happened these last two months, having John Lee deliver his pep talk in person would be the ultimate prize, more precious even than gold. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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