First came the state-mandated closures, which shut down Suni Lee's school and gym in the early days of the pandemic. Before March 2020 was over, her quest to reach the Olympics was put on hold, too, when the Tokyo Summer Games were postponed by one year.
That was just the beginning. Over the next several months, the St. Paul gymnast endured a broken foot and a COVID-19 scare. The coronavirus took the life of a beloved aunt. Lee's uncle, a Hmong shaman who helped treat her sports injuries, died 13 days after his wife, of a heart attack following his recovery from COVID.
"It was just so difficult to get through it,'' Lee said. "You don't think something like this would ever happen to you. And when it did, it was like everything hit all at one time.''
Though Lee did make it through, she hasn't forgotten those hard times. Tonight, she will begin competition at the U.S. Olympic trials in St. Louis as a more determined, mature person, strengthened by the ordeal of the past 16 months.
After a training session Wednesday, Lee said the pain in her ankle — a byproduct of that foot injury — is waning. She said she feels "a little bit of pressure'' after finishing second in the all-around at the U.S. championships three weeks ago, but she is aiming to build on that performance. Competing in all four events for the first time in more than a year, Lee, 18, also defended her national title on uneven bars and earned a silver medal on balance beam.
Her coach Jess Graba said he is "kind of surprised we're here,'' given what Lee faced last year. In addition to the personal turmoil and the injury, she lost about three months of training to the state-mandated gym shutdown, and she had to adapt through a growth spurt.
"Suni can push through almost any physical pain,'' Graba said. "But with everything else that was happening, it was overwhelming. You're talking about someone that has basically sacrificed her teenage years to train for the Olympics. She went through a lot of depression.''
With the Olympics finally in sight, that has given way to thankfulness.
"I'm really super proud of myself for even getting here and making it all the way to trials,'' Lee said. "I definitely feel blessed.
"After COVID and quarantine, I was really unmotivated. It was really hard for me to get back in the gym, because we had so much time off, and I felt like I wasn't good enough anymore, almost. But right now, I'm doing a lot better mentally. And you can see it in my gymnastics as well.''
The perils of postponement
Though time and therapy have improved Lee's sore left Achilles' tendon, she will do a scaled-back version of her floor exercise at the trials, as she did at nationals. Rather than increasing her difficulty, she will focus on perfecting the details of her routines.
Lee has come a long way since February, when she could barely walk without pain. Graba said that illustrated the challenges gymnasts faced when the Olympics were postponed. While some athletes welcomed an extra year to prepare, he thought it was the worst thing that could have happened.
Because the sport exacts such a physical toll, athletes have to plan training and rest periods carefully to avoid injuries and peak for big meets. "Then we find out we have to wait another year,'' Graba said. "And there's no contingency plan.''
According to Graba, for every week a gymnast takes off, it requires three weeks to return to form. Being out of the gym for several months was unfathomable. For Lee, finding ways to train on her own was just one problem among many.
In July, she got so sick she could not get out of bed; though she tested negative for COVID, she still isolated for two weeks just to be safe. After the deaths of her aunt and uncle, Lee worried about the COVID risk for her father, John, who was partially paralyzed in a 2019 accident.
She feared Graba's gym, Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, would not survive the financial blow of the pandemic. And only two weeks after the gym reopened in June, she injured her foot.
"It was so hard for all of us,'' Lee said. "Trying to stay motivated was one of the toughest things.''
Graba was concerned about how Lee was handling things early in the pandemic. The two had many discussions about resetting goals and how to maintain hope when good news was in short supply.
"I tried to tell her this was another chance to grow as a person, and to take these lessons and apply them later in life,'' Graba said. "This is the hand you've been dealt. Let's figure out what we're going to do. It took a lot to get through it.''
Time passed quickly
When the Olympics were postponed, Lee didn't delete the Summer Games countdown she had on her phone. She let it run out, then set up a new one for 2021, keeping the faith even when the Tokyo Games felt far from certain.
That's been another theme for her over the past year. Lee believed she could still make a run at the Olympic team and trained as hard as her body would allow, competing in all three major U.S. meets before the national championships.
Though Lee didn't get as many repetitions as Graba hoped before the national meet — and had not competed at all on floor exercise or vault — she was determined to do all four events at the U.S. championships. She shrugged off the discomfort in her ankle after her three-medal performance, saying she could push the pain aside.
"I think going in, she wasn't sure of everything,'' Graba said. "Placing top two at championships with where she was, she proved it to herself.''
Despite the trials of the past 16 months, Lee has been careful not to overlook the blessings. Her father had an electrical stimulator implanted in his spinal cord and has begun to move his legs.
Staying at home during COVID shutdowns gave Lee more time with her close-knit family, and her parents plan to come to the Olympic trials after attending the U.S. championships. Lee also was able to walk in her graduation ceremony this month at South St. Paul High School.
A year ago, it seemed unthinkable to Lee that she had to wait another 12 months for her shot at the Olympics. On the eve of the trials, she marveled at how quickly the time passed, and how far she has come.
"Knowing I could come back to the gym and get to where I am now, even after going through everything the last two years, it's so cool,'' Lee said.