Want to be like Suni Lee? Minnesota gymnastics leaders watching for spike in interest

The significance of what Suni Lee’s gold medal win means to Minnesota, St. Paul, the Hmong American community and the Lee family is hard to comprehend. But Ryan Rohloff, state chairman of Minnesota for USA Gymnastics, summed up what it does for the sport in Minnesota in one word: “energizing.”

“Having Suni as the all-around champion is going to enlighten people to the sport and the opportunities that the sport can provide,” Rohloff said Friday, one day after Lee became a global star with her gold medal performance in the all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics. “With her background and what she’s been through, I think everybody can look at that and be inspired.”

Of the 17 Minnesotans on Team USA in these Olympics, three are gymnasts: Lee and Grace McCallum on the women’s side, and Shane Wiskus in the men’s competition. Track and field is the only other sport with as many Minnesotans.

With superstar Simone Biles out of the team competition, her three American teammates had to step up. Lee and McCallum, along with Jordan Chiles, didn’t disappoint, and the U.S. secured a silver medal.

“As this all unfolded, the team competition ended up being Team Minnesota versus the world,” Rohloff said. “And we dominated.”

McCallum, of Isanti, has trained at Twin City Twisters in Champlin for the past five years. The club was the first in the state to add an elite gymnastics program about 10 years ago and also trained world champion and NCAA standout Maggie Nichols of Little Canada.

The elite level is the highest competitive level, and running an elite program requires a significant investment of money and time from coaches. But gyms like TCT and Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, where Lee trained, have something to offer gymnasts at all levels.

“If you ask a 6-year-old in our program, ‘Who’s going to the Olympics,’ you’re going to get 90 percent of the hands in the air,” TCT co-owner Mike Hunger said. “We do try to be realistic with the kids, and we try to provide a varied enough program that will take them as far as their talent and desire can go.”

Hunger, who founded TCT in 1987, said the gymnastics community in Minnesota has a collaborative spirit that he doesn’t see in other parts of the country.

“It kind of boils down to the Midwest work ethic,” he said. “We’re not afraid to ask a local competitor club, ‘How did you develop this skill? What are you doing for this training plan?’ It’s more of a sharing community.”

That collaborative spirit means the clubs that trained Lee, McCallum and Wiskus — which are all within about 30 minutes of one another — have close ties. With the success of all three athletes in Tokyo, clubs around the state stand to benefit.

Mike Burns, head coach of the University of Minnesota’s men’s team until the program was cut earlier this year, said the Olympics tend to create a buzz around the sport. With Lee’s all-around win, Rohloff expects there to be a local gymnastics “craze.” He spoke to Midwest Gymnastics Center co-owner Alison Lim, who remained stateside with her four children while her husband and co-owner Jess Graba traveled to Tokyo to coach Lee, and Lim told him she had been inundated with calls and requests since Lee’s big moment.

While overwhelming, this rush is a good sign for those hoping for more gymnastics growth in the state and nationwide.

“At the elite level, 30 or 40 years ago there used to be, like, five or six clubs in the entire country,” Hunger said. “If you wanted to make an Olympic team, you probably had to go to one of those five clubs. Now it’s so widespread that at any national meet, there might be 40 to 50 clubs represented.”

Representation — Minnesota knows all about that right now in Tokyo.

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