STUTTGART, Germany — As Sunisa Lee stood on the podium, wearing a gold medal in her world championships debut, she replayed her three routines from Tuesday’s team final. Then she thought about her dad, who is always on her mind these days.
“He FaceTimed me last night,” Lee said. “I know that he’s watching.”
Her father, John, streamed the team final from the spinal cord injury center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He is rehabbing after being paralyzed from the chest down falling off a ladder on Aug. 4. He was helping a friend trim branches from a tree to set up a tent for a wedding.
“Wish I could have been there to see it, but it is what it is,” John, who served in the Navy on board the USS Trenton during the Persian Gulf War, said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “To see her and her teammates do so well, it’s amazing.”
Lee, 16 and one of six kids, broke out at her first senior U.S. Championships in August, finishing second to Simone Biles, one week after John’s accident. She considered not traveling from Minnesota to Kansas City for that meet. She spent the whole day before her departure date with her dad in the hospital, then went ahead to compete in part because of his urging.
Practice before the first day of competition was particularly difficult, given John was undergoing eight hours of surgery. They FaceTimed before each day of the two days of competition.
Lee surprised herself in doing so well, winning the uneven bars title, while overcoming a hairline fracture in her tibia that was 75 to 80 percent healed. She was third in the all-around at junior nationals the previous year.
“I was thinking of my dad the whole time,” she said, “and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud.”
Then, at the world team selection camp in September, she finished second to Biles again. This time it was a margin of just .35 of a point, closer than any of Biles’ last five U.S. titles. Lee established herself as a medal contender at worlds in the all-around (Thursday) and on uneven bars (Saturday).
“With me being injured, with all this pressure on her, I cannot believe she’s doing so well,” John said. “I’m very proud of her.”
As is Biles, who after breaking the women’s record for most world championships medals on Tuesday chose to spotlight Lee, the youngest member of the world team and the lone rookie.
“What’s impressed me the most, I think, has been Suni,” Biles said of Lee, who before podium training last week voiced her nervousness to her veteran teammates. “She’s only 16 years old. She’s been through a long year, and to come out and put up the three events and the scores she did is pretty crazy.”
John watched as Lee was the busiest U.S. gymnast aside from Biles on Tuesday. She opened by posting the U.S.’ top score on bars. After falling off the balance beam, Lee recovered with a slightly better floor exercise routine than she performed in qualifying. She was then asked where she planned to place the gold medal.
“Probably on my front door,” she said, “so I can stare at it.”
Lee’s goal is to leave Stuttgart with three medals: make Thursday’s all-around podium and place top two in the uneven bars final, which also includes Biles. “I think I’m a little bit far off from Simone, just because she’s so good,” Lee said before the meet.
“Our goal is always to use Simone as the measuring stick and try to get as close as you can,” said her coach, Jess Graba. “If you’re shooting for the top, you should land somewhere close.”
Lee used some of a teenager’s most valuable real estate — her Instagram bio — to add a link to a gofundme page for her dad. So far, more than 350 donors have given a combined $24,000, halfway to the goal. The funds will go to medical expenses, lost wages and housing and transportation accommodations.
“It surprises me that a lot of friends and family and co-workers, but also so many of Sunisa’s teammates, coaches, fans, everybody got in there and supported that page,” John said. “I appreciate it so much. You cannot believe how many people.”
It is possible that John can walk again, but not guaranteed. He expects to be discharged at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
“So I will be able to watch the rest of her competition from the comfort of my home, which is awesome,” he said.
John said he will talk to his daughter again before Thursday’s all-around final, reminding her how well she’s doing and how proud he is of her.
“Tough little girl,” he said. “My goal is to walk. Hopefully I can walk before Tokyo. One way or another, if she makes it to Tokyo, I will be there.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.
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