Her Olympic Dream on Hold, Teen Gymnast Faces Other Trials

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Her Olympic Dream on Hold, Teen Gymnast Faces Other Trials


Along with the rest of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate look at their journeys in periodic installments through the rest of the year. Read Lee’s first installment here.

The alarm on Sunisa Lee’s cellphone rang on Monday. She had set it many months ago as a joyful reminder of her departure to St. Louis for the Olympic gymnastics trials, which had been scheduled to start on June 25, when she would be a favorite to make the United States team for Tokyo 2020.

But with the trials and the Olympics postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the alarm couldn’t have been more deflating. Already, the past three months have been some of the most trying in Lee’s young life.

Lee, 17, had been ecstatic that her gym, Midwest Gymnastics, was set to open on June 1 after being closed for nearly three months. But a week before she was to return, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited passionate protests in the area. Though the largest of them happened about 20 minutes away from Lee’s home in St. Paul, Minn., her neighborhood grocery store and Target were looted, and she and her family decided to stay indoors.

Around the same time, one of Lee’s aunts and the aunt’s husband, died within 13 days of each other. Then, only two weeks after returning to training full-time, Lee twisted her left ankle on a fall from the uneven bars, relegating her to nearly the same monotonous routine she had under quarantine — mostly strength and conditioning training — until her ankle heals.

Even with all the tumult, Lee likely will reset the alarm on her phone for next year. When it rings to signal the Olympic trials she wants to be ready in both body and spirit.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The days right before I went back to the gym were supposed to be happy ones, but the protests in Minneapolis were really crazy for everyone here. I didn’t go to the protests, but I understand where the anger is coming from and why people are trying to push for change. There weren’t any protests in our neighborhood, but one day we did have people throwing things in our yard. It was hard for me to even think about going back to the gym while all of these things were going on.

I heard that a lot of Hmong-owned businesses were looted and that was hard to handle. One of the officers there for George Floyd’s death was Hmong. So that was extra upsetting because it kind of made me feel like you’re a bad person because you’re Hmong. As a proud Hmong-American, I’m trying to spread positivity about Hmong people and tell people what it’s like to be Hmong, and I felt like this was a big blow to our reputation.

When my aunt died of the coronavirus, it was very, very hard on me and my family. I knew the coronavirus was a real thing, but it really hit home when my aunt died, and it was really hard to watch my mom go through that with her sister. My aunt was in her 60s, and she was one of my favorite aunts because she was so loving and caring and was always supportive of me. She wanted the best for me, and I appreciated that. My mom would always take me to her and my uncle when I was injured. They would give me herbs and give me massages, or wrap my injured ankle to have the swelling go down. My uncle was a shaman, a Hmong healer.

I didn’t go to my aunt’s funeral because not many people were allowed there because of the coronavirus and my mom thought it would be too emotional for me and my siblings. But my whole family did say goodbye to my aunt after she was taken off the ventilator in the hospital. We were all on Zoom and my mom was talking to her in Hmong, asking my aunt to watch over us and make sure we are OK in life. It was definitely hard to see that.

Usually, Hmong funerals last several days and our whole family comes together for it. It’s a Hmong tradition to fold thousands of little paper boats with silver or gold paper that represent money the person could take into the afterlife, but we couldn’t do that because of the coronavirus. There was no time and my relatives were scared of traveling. So I folded as many little boats as I could. I took the day off from the gym so I could fold and fold. The tradition is that the boats are burned once the person is buried. I watched my aunt’s funeral on a livestream. Two weeks later, when my uncle died, it was a shock to my whole family. He had recovered from the virus, but he had a heart attack. There are still a lot of tears.

When my gym finally reopened, I was so excited, but it wasn’t like everything went back to normal. It was really fun to see my friends again, but we can’t hug each other and have to say six feet away from each other. We have to train in smaller groups and don’t get to see our friends as much. We have to wear a mask going into the gym and then when we go to the bathroom or take a break. We wash our hands and use sanitizer before and after every event.

The other difference was that the training was so hard! My gosh, after the first day I was so sore that I could barely walk the next day and for a week after that. Training on the equipment is very different than working out in your own at home. I definitely didn’t think it would be as painful as it has been.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


The toughest part was going back on the uneven bars. I feel like most of my events came back to me pretty fast, except the bars. For me, I know that people always expect me to be perfect, so when I’m not perfect, it’s really frustrating. I’m really hard on myself and want things to work out right away. It’s difficult to find the balance if your swing is off. With the other events, I can adjust to things, but if my air awareness is off on bars, everything gets really messed up. I was really upset when I hurt my ankle on bars because now I can’t do them for another few weeks. It’s basically the same injury I had last year going into national championships.

It’s impossible not to wonder what I’d be doing now if the Olympics weren’t canceled. I know I’d be at trials right now, so close to my goal of making it to the Olympics. But I talk to my gymnastics friends and it makes me feel better because we’re all in the same boat, looking at another 12 months of training. I’ve talked to Simone Biles a lot, and it’s really nice to get to know her in this way because she was my idol and I used to see her as this intimidating gold medalist, but now she’s a friend. I tell her about how I was finally able to get my nails done and how I went shopping at the Mall of America and bought some summer clothes at PacSun and some shoes at Nike. She told me that she has another dog and is getting another house.

I feel like the energy in the world this year has been so negative. I try to remind myself that I’ll come back from my ankle injury better than ever. I’m looking forward to going to national team camp soon, but that might not be until September. I just want this year to be over. I’m so ready for 2021.



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