Sunisa Lee was peaking at just the right time for the 2020 Olympics. She won silver and bronze medals at the 2019 gymnastics world championships and helped the United States team take home gold.
Then the Tokyo Games were put on hold and Lee, 18, was — for the first time ever — forced to take an extended break from the gym.
She spent much of 2020 like many of us, locked inside and mourning the loss of loved ones. When she returned to training in June last year, she injured her ankle and was out for three more months.
At the Olympic trials, Lee automatically qualified for the U.S. women’s team when she finished second, behind Simone Biles. In Tokyo, Lee has a shot at an all-around medal and her skills will go a long way toward securing a team gold for the United States for a third straight Olympics.
On the uneven bars, where Lee performs one of the hardest routines, she has few equals. In the floor exercise, she not only tumbles well but also turns and leaps with grace. And on the balance beam, she consistently and flawlessly executes difficult moves that other gymnasts avoid.
To understand what makes Lee one of the best gymnasts in the world, we spent time with her at Midwest Gymnastics in Minnesota, where she trains, as she prepared for her Olympic debut.
‘Close to Perfection’
Uneven bars is one of the most physically demanding events in women’s gymnastics, because athletes must use their arms throughout. Bonus points are awarded for connecting each skill, and Lee’s routine links four of the most difficult maneuvers currently done on the apparatus.
Whereas other gymnasts tend to swing on the bar to gain momentum and gather themselves between maneuvers, Lee goes directly from one skill to the next. This demonstration of strength, precision and stamina sets her apart.
“It’s just about as close to perfection as I think anyone can get,” Nastia Liukin, an analyst for NBC and a five-time Olympic medalist, said of Lee’s routine. “If one little thing goes wrong, the whole routine could essentially fall apart.”
This level of difficulty carries through the routine as Lee shows mastery of conventional skills. But what sets her apart from other gymnasts is her ability to connect the moves in ways that they don’t.
The precision and timing needed to string these moves together take years to develop. Here’s what happens when Lee is a bit off on the Nabieva:
“After quarantine, it was so hard to come back,” Lee said. “I lost my awareness of where the bar was. So I had to relearn that a little bit.”
After struggling through her time off, Lee placed first in uneven bars at this year’s national championships and at the Olympic trials. She will be in contention for gold in Tokyo.
Quality of Movement
Lee got into gymnastics when she was 6 years old, after watching videos on YouTube. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” she said. “It looked so fun, and I wanted to try it myself.”
Lee’s coaches say she has spent more time practicing tumbling over the years than all other events combined.
“Suni’s not the most powerful athlete in the world,” her coach Jess Graba said. “If she wants to tumble with the top girls and be a top player on floor, her tumbling has to come from technique.”
But what makes her floor routine special is how it flows. She connects her tumbling passes, dance moves, leaps and turns with artistry and elegance.
In 2019, she won bronze in the floor exercise at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships and silver at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
“I hate when people say that I’m just, like, a specialist,” Lee said. “I feel like sometimes people forget that I had a world medal on the floor.”
On the balance beam, where just two wobbles can take an athlete out of contention, Lee is uniquely able to execute both the hardest dance and tumbling skills. Most gymnasts emphasize one area or the other, but her smooth rhythm on the most difficult moves makes her a medal contender.
“I know a lot of people think she’s all about the bars, but she wants the all-around,” Graba said. “I think people are starting to recognize her now for beam.”
Lee’s Olympic debut will look different than she once expected. Fans won’t fill the stadium, and her parents and five siblings are not permitted to travel with her to Tokyo.
Still, Lee says after a year of personal and physical challenges, she is more than ready to compete. “I was able to work through all that pain and all that depression,” she said. “I’m just so close and it feels so good.”