Balancing Life as Olympic Hopeful, Teen

15-9 Sunisa Lee
Sunisa Lee with teammate Emma Malabuyo at a competition in Italy. (Courtesy Jess Graba)

Bold. Graceful. Poised. Successful. Minnesota elite gymnast Sunisa Lee’s moves are fueled by passion and drive that keep viewers hooked on her performances. Training locally and only 16 years old, she is well on her way to becoming the first Hmong American gymnast to compete in the Olympics, setting her sights on the 2020 Summer Olympics.  

Lee began her gymnastics career at the age of 6 but spoke passionately about how she started out by watching YouTube videos at home before trying out at Midwest Gymnastics with a friend. Lee recalls how her parents and family were always supportive of her dream of being a gymnast, even if they did not completely understand at first. 

“When I was younger, I was (practicing) flipping, and I asked my dad to make me (a) beam. So he took two wooden planks and made a beam,” Lee said. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever! I did backflips on it all the time. That’s when I first started learning,” 

Jess Graba is currently Lee’s head coach and the owner of Midwest Gymnastics, where she trains. He said he immediately noticed a spark in her when she was 6 and first began attending the gym. Even though she started three years later than most of her peers, she was able to quickly catch up.  

Lee said gymnastics became serious for her when she was 9 after participating in her first elite competition. She said that is when gymnastics became complicated, but she was always confident in her skills.  

“Usually when I get there (to the venue), I eat breakfast. Then I have a whole playlist I listen to and it just pumps me up,” Lee said. “… and then it usually ends up in a dance party and a concert.” 

Lee’s first national competition was the 2015 Women’s Junior Olympics. Since then she has participated in various national competitions, most notably the 2018 U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She has placed first in at least one event in all her international meets since 2017. 

Although Lee is an elite athlete on the road to competing in the Olympics, she still tries to balance that with being a normal teenager. It’s not always easy. She currently attends South St. Paul Secondary, which she says is very supportive of her career and is always there to help her succeed academically. However, because of her fame, Lee sometimes struggles to connect with her fellow classmates.  

She spoke about how most of her friends are from gymnastics groups because they understand each other better. Because they do not live in the same area, she tries to video chat with them every night.  

Lee shared how close she is with her five siblings because they can get her mind off gymnastics. 

15-2 Sunisa Lee
Sunisa Lee with her mom, Yeev Thoj. (Courtesy Mark VanCleave)

“We always go to the mall because I don’t want to stay home. I’m always home or I’m always at practice. It’s OK (to) just go do something. I really love it because I don’t think about gymnastics then.” 

Even though Minnesota is not a top state for aspiring gymnastic competitors, Lee continues to train here because of her strong bond with  her coach. Her 9-year-old sister is also currently training at Midwest Gymnastics. Lee spoke fondly about her and said she loves watching her show off new skills.  

“I think I’ve inspired a lot of gymnasts or a lot of girls to start being in gymnastics, at least at my gym a little bit,” she said. “Sometimes my dad will be like, ‘Oh yeah, those parents over there were talking to me about how your daughter inspired (ours) to come here and how much they love her.’” 

Even if the Olympics are not in her future, Lee has big dreams to give back to the gymnastics community in St. Paul. She hopes to open her own gym in St. Paul and continue to inspire young women to join the sport she loves.

Watch ThreeSixty student Sophia Schach report on this story for ThreeSixty’s TV Broadcast Camp: