After a COVID scare, an Olympic hopeful recovers her optimism

By Juliet Macur

At first, Sunisa Lee, a favorite to make the United States women’s gymnastics team for the Tokyo Olympics, didn’t think much of the tickle in her throat.

But on that Sunday evening last month, two days after the 2020 Summer Games were supposed to begin before they were postponed a year, the tickle turned into soreness that made her throat feel like it was on fire. When she woke up with a fever and chills, she panicked.

Contracting the coronavirus and unknowingly infecting her father, John, had been her worst fear throughout the pandemic. He is at high risk for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, because he was paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a ladder in 2019, and his breathing is compromised.

To be safe, Lee, 17, shut herself in her second-floor bedroom while her family — including her three younger siblings — relocated their bedrooms to the first floor of their St. Paul, Minn., home and slept on air mattresses or the couch.

Though her coronavirus and strep tests came back negative, Lee spent nearly two weeks in isolation, not wanting to take any chances. Her aunt and uncle, with whom she had been very close, died of COVID-19 this summer, within 13 days of each other. She had to say goodbye to her aunt via Zoom.

Now Lee, a high school senior this year, is finally back at her gym, Midwest Gymnastics, for what seems like her hundredth restart in 2020.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Sunisa Lee: Of course, the first thing I thought when I got sick was, “I have the coronavirus.” It was scary. I had the worst headache of my life and it lasted for four days. My throat hurt so bad that I couldn’t talk or swallow. At night, I slept with five blankets on me because I had the shivers and couldn’t stop shaking. Then my fever got really high, like to 103. One day I cried all day when I couldn’t even lie down because it hurt to do anything. My mom left chicken soup for me at my door, and it was so great that she could take care of me. The food was good. I didn’t lose my taste or smell, so maybe it wasn’t the coronavirus after all.

The week after I was sick, I was still stuck in my room while I rested and isolated. It was frustrating, but everyone wanted me to stay away from them, stay out of the gym and stay home. So I watched a lot of “The Vampire Diaries” and FaceTimed with my friends. I also did a lot of schoolwork, wrote three or four papers, and just chilled. My dad called me every day to check up on me, and I also made sure he wasn’t feeling sick. It was stressful to think that he might have caught something from me. I’m so relieved that he didn’t.

While I was at home, a Snapchat memory on my phone reminded me that it was one year since my dad’s accident. I actually didn’t cry when I saw it. I’m just so happy that my dad is alive right now. I looked back at the memories of his accident and got chills. I thought he was going to pass away when he was in the hospital, so I didn’t want to go to nationals and compete. But he told me to go, that he really wanted me to go. So I did. Now I realize that if he didn’t push me like that, I wouldn’t be in the spot I am right now with the Olympics so close.

On the anniversary, I texted him and said, “Dad, I’m so proud of how far you’ve come and that you’ve come back so strong.” He is still in a wheelchair, but he can use his hands and he is getting better every day.

The day the Olympics were supposed to start, one of my coaches, Alison Lim, sent me a text. She said today was the day I’d be at the opening ceremony and that this year didn’t turn out how any of us wanted it to. She told me to keep reaching and pushing my limits, and that it won’t be easy, but that nothing worth it ever is. On that sad, depressing day of this crazy year, it was so nice to get a note like that.

It really sucked to be out of the gym for so long. I can’t afford to miss more time because I already missed so much with my ankle injury. Getting sick pushed me back another two weeks. I’m so nervous that I’m falling behind. One of the hardest things was watching my friends post what they are doing in the gym. I just sat on my bed in my pajamas and watched them on Instagram. Everyone got pretty good.

Before I went back to training, I had to take an EKG to make sure my heart was OK. I also had to take a chest X-ray, do a throat culture and give blood for testing. The national team and my coaches wanted to make sure my body was ready for hard training. When I finally got back to the gym, my coach, Jess Graba, told me to take it slow and not rush into anything. Now I basically have all of my skills back, except on vault. I haven’t done vault yet because my ankle still hurts a little bit, but I go to physical therapy every week to strengthen it.

After you take time off, it can be really scary to do the harder things you used to do, and I personally hate being scared. When I’m scared of hurting myself, I start to overthink things and won’t go for it. The uneven bars make me especially nervous because when you stop training, you lose sense of where the bar is going to be. And I grew an inch and a half this year, so I have had to make adjustments.

So instead of thinking too much, I just force myself to do a skill. After I throw one, I’m fine, even though I always wipe out on that first one. I just get back up and get ready to go again.

I learned one very important lesson through all this. I realized that I could actually miss practice and rest, then come back to the gym and still have my skills. I had no idea that it could be that way. Now I think it’s more beneficial, mentally and physically, to rest sometimes because your body and your mind can heal and you can work on yourself as a person. And when you finally go back, your body feels brand-new.

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