Just before Sunisa Lee was about to start her floor exercise at the Olympic Trials in St. Louis last month, she heard one particular voice stand out among the cheering crowd. It was her sister, Shyenne, yelling her name. Lee had to take a second to gather herself, but she also couldn’t help but love hearing Shyenne’s voice.
Family is one of the main things that motivates the 18-year-old Lee when she competes for the U.S. gymnastics team. Lee’s father, John, was paralyzed when he fell off a ladder while helping a friend in August of 2019, not long before she competed at the U.S. nationals. She went on to finish second at nationals, behind Simone Biles, and then won three medals at the world championships.
But even as her gymnastics career was taking off, Lee couldn’t have her parents close by. With his injury and the pandemic, John could not make it to his daughter’s competition until the U.S. nationals in June in Texas. Whether he is watching in person or not, John gives her a pep talk before she competes.
“He just told me to go out there and do what I normally do, not too much and not too little, because what I've been doing has been working, obviously,” Lee said. “And then he told me just to not focus on everything else and just focus on what I'm doing.”
Lee is the first U.S. Olympian from the Hmong community, which gives her a source of strength and inspiration as she trains.
“Competing for the Hmong community is important for me because I feel like it's just so small and people still aren't aware of it,” Lee said. “And I think a lot of people in the Hmong community also just are afraid to branch out and do sports and continue with it. I want to be someone that inspires them to do it because I know not a lot of people have the opportunity to do this, but for someone that has been in that boat, my parents weren't going to keep me in gymnastics probably. But I was the one that wanted it. And I just feel many people need to hear that in the Hmong community, and I just want to inspire.”
Lee is an all-around gymnast, but she truly shines with her difficult routine on the uneven bars. She won the bars at the Olympic Trials and has a bronze medal on bars from the 2019 World Championship.
Lee has excelled all season but hasn’t even thrown her biggest routines. She feels a little bit more confident when she knows she has an even more difficult skill in her back pocket.
“I think that gives me a lot of confidence especially because I still haven't done all four passes on floor and then my bar routine could have been a little bit better,” she said at trials. “There was still a little bit of shaky moments here and there … but it does give me a lot of confidence going into the Olympics.”