Balancing act: Gymnast Emily Lee takes her shot at Olympics


ST. LOUIS — Emily Lee loves gymnastics. Yet she hates competing. Yes, she’s aware of the contradiction. Then again, the 18-year-old is aware of a lot of things.

She knows her path to one of the coveted spots on the 2021 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team is complicated. That she could have the meet of her life this weekend at the Olympic trials and not hear her name called on Sunday night. That this is likely her first and last shot at reaching the games.

She’s OK with that. A scholarship to UCLA awaits in the fall. And the rest of her life — maybe one day working as a physical therapist — after that.

Lee keeps reminding herself that she’s playing with house money, as someone put it to her recently. Reaching the precipice of the Olympics was never really the goal. At least not one she ever said out loud. This is the same athlete after all who once broke down in tears — not borne out of joy, but anxiety — shortly after she qualified for her first junior national championships because she wasn’t sure she was ready.

Yet she’s kept moving forward despite her complex relationship with her sport and a series of obstacles both personal and professional that could have easily forced her to tell longtime coaches Paul Duron and Judy Zhuo it was time to move on.

Only she never has. Not after Taylor, her younger sister, died in 2015 at age 3 following a sudden and brief bout with leukemia. Not after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered West Valley Gymnastics School just outside San Jose, California, last year, forcing the diligent rules-follower to break the rules — repeatedly — to train. Not after taking on a pair of jobs to help deal with the financial stress of competing at the elite level.

There is something that keeps drawing Lee in. She points to the relationships she’s built over the years. The sense of family she feels when she walks through the doors at West Valley. Perhaps most important is the peace she finds when there’s chalk on her hands and work to be done. The peace that comforted her as she grappled with Taylor’s death.

“I was able to get out of my head a little bit,” she said. “At first, it was really hard coming back. Like I kept thinking ‘I should be grieving, I should be doing all this stuff.’ Eventually, it started helping me. For a split second during practice, I kind of forgot how (bad) my life was going.”

So she pressed on. She always presses on. Ask Zhou what stands out about the young woman who walked into West Valley at age 6 and she doesn’t point to Lee’s remarkably intricate beam routine or the tumbling passes on floor exercise that can rival anyone on the planet not named Simone Biles, but her preternatural drive and uncommon grace.

“She has no attitude at all,” Zhou said. “She’s very, very humble. She’s always willing to help with the little kids in the gym. It’s just her personality. Everybody just loves her. She’s kind. Very kind and a beautiful kid inside and outside.”

Beauty that comes with a layer of grit.

Lee won the all-around at 2020 Gymnix in Montreal last March just days before the pandemic hit. When Santa Clara County lawmakers shut down indoor gathering places, Lee and a few teammates would sneak in with Zhou through one of West Valley’s side doors at 6 a.m., each taking turns as lookouts. This went on for months until authorities stopped by threatening the owner with fines of up to $10,000.

A gym in a neighboring county that had less strident pandemic guidelines offered a few hours here and there. Yet most of her training last fall consisted of outdoor track workouts. When the restrictions were finally eased in December, she threw herself back into training and was a late entry into Winter Cup in February, something she described as a “miracle” because she felt so unprepared after going nearly a year without competing.

“It was just really nerve-racking,” she said. “I fell on bars. I had a real shaky beam routine. I think I did my first full floor routine a week before.”

She came in third in the all-around anyway, then followed it up with an eighth-place finish at the U.S. Classic in May. She dropped to 13th at the national championships last month, though she laughed when asked if she ever considered doing just focusing on beam at Olympic Trials in hopes of landing the specialist spot.

“That was never a discussion,” she said. “I’m doing all four.”

Still, a knockout performance on her signature event likely offers her the best chance at strong consideration. Lee is a world-class competitor on the apparatus that requires a unique combination of balance, daring and concentration. She’s consistently one of the top three on the event during verification exercises at national team camp and posted a 15.1 this spring, a score that topped the one put up by Biles when she won gold on the event at the 2019 world championships.

Two superb performances under the white-hot spotlight of trials would give the selection committee something to think about. Yet Lee understands the U.S. is so deep that the committee could pick any combination of the 17 other gymnasts not named Biles and come up with a team capable of helping the Americans win a third straight Olympic team title.

However it works out, she’s fine with it. She made a choice when the pandemic started to keep going. It’s one of the reasons she’s been doing private coaching and delivering groceries in her Honda Accord on the weekends.

Making it this far is not an inexpensive undertaking. People have invested their time — and, in some cases, money — in her journey. Giving maximum effort in return is the least she can do for them. And, most important, for herself. So she’ll deal with the jitters, the ones that turn her stomach into a vise and can make the wait until the competition starts agonizing.

She hates it. She loves it. She’s ready for it. This is her thing. It always has been.

“I’m really proud of where I am right now, even if trials doesn’t go my way,” Lee said. “I’m still going to be proud.”

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