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Out of the silt unstained: Yu-Chen Lee’s rise from the dark

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APRIL 21, 2022

Under the bright lights of Haas Pavilion, a freshman gymnast stands alone. As the first one up on the first rotation of the first meet of the season, the nerves grow until they are almost too overwhelming to handle.

The gymnast eventually finds his composure, glancing at the coaches one last time before beginning his routine. After stepping off the mats with his very first hit of his college career, he is immediately surrounded by a crowd of upperclassmen. Welcome to Cal, they said.

Fast forward four years.

It’s senior and team captain Yu-Chen (Miles) Lee’s last routine of the 2022 season on the biggest collegiate stage. After one last fist bump with his coaches, he locks his eyes on the parallel bars. The nerves are creeping up on him — the stadium is too alien and the crowd is too loud for comfort. But Lee tries to block everything out, and takes one last deep breath as he prepares to mount.

As planned, Lee hit his final parallel bars routine. Although he wasn’t able to achieve All-American status, he accumulated a remarkable seven for seven hit rate when combined with his performance from the previous day. Closing out the season as one of the few Cal gymnasts to qualify for the NCAA finals, he had once again proven that he’s the one his coaches and teammates can count on to hit every routine.

“Whatever Miles does, he has a great passion towards it,” said freshman Sean Shimizu. “He’s definitely the person I look up to most because he’s responsible, on top of things and a really good gymnast.”

Passionate and responsible are only some of the many words his teammates use to describe him. However, he wasn’t born with these traits. The years of training in both Taiwan and the United States polished down his rough edges and taught him to never back down. And it was these experiences that transformed Lee from a shy, nervous kid into the leader he is today.

Before gymnastics, Lee was a martial artist. At first, his parents didn’t want him to follow the path of an athlete. But when they saw the itty-bitty 4-year-old Yu-Chen tumbling around on the mats, they immediately changed their minds.

“There was an undeniable spark of athleticism in him,” his mother said. “Since I didn’t want him to be someone with no hobbies outside of academics, I thought, why not?”

In the seven years he spent practicing martial arts, Lee secured quite a few achievements, including first place in the National Youth Championships of the Republic of China. He would’ve continued down the path of a martial artist with plans of moving to mainland China to train, but his coach was busy  with other commitments that held Lee back from proper training. So his parents decided to let him try gymnastics.

It required the skills and flexibility he’d acquired through martial arts, but Lee wasn’t fully convinced until he came across a Taiwanese gymnastics documentary.

“It felt cool seeing all these people tumbling and doing all sorts of cool stuff,” said Lee. “So I wanted to get into it and see how it goes.”

Photo of Yu-Chen Lee

It didn’t go well at first. Most gymnasts begin training at the age of 5 — at 11 years old, Lee was years behind his peers in skills and experience. In addition to the late start, he was also the youngest member of his team and his coach pushed him hard at practice. He would often feel left out and alone in the gym, and eventually gymnastics morphed from a sport he loved into a daily chore.

“In Taiwan, it was really high pressure and people kind of force you to do stuff instead of letting you do what you wanted to do,” Lee said. “I got into it because I thought it was fun but, like every other sport, it was really tough pushing through the repetitiveness and everything.”

Although his mother was always supportive of his choices to pursue the path of an athlete, other family members didn’t share the same sentiment. His father thought gymnastics would take away from his education and his sister felt that gymnastics wasn’t popular enough.

“Gymnastics is also a very dangerous sport prone to injuries,” his mother said. “But I saw how passionate he was and believed in him and wanted to back him up no matter what other people say.”

Growing up in such a high-pressure environment took a mental toll on Lee. It wasn’t until he moved to the United States that he finally found his love for gymnastics again.

At first, the transition from a Chinese-speaking training environment to an English speaking one was strange. Even so, the training system, environment and team dynamic gave Lee the comfort he could never quite find when training in Taiwan.

“I kind of sucked when I first got here,” Lee said. “The U.S. is where I realized that I really wanted to do well. I started taking it seriously and improved day by day.”

In his senior year of high school, Lee was finally able to reap the rewards of his blood, sweat and tears after winning first place for parallel bars in the 2018 Junior Nationals in Oklahoma. As he headed into Berkeley for his first semester as a collegiate athlete, Lee was more confident than ever that he’d picked the right path, and the few years of training in the U.S. had once again cemented his love for gymnastics.

Lee is well known in collegiate gymnastics for his emotionless expressions and collected composure on the mats. But his teammates know that inside that calm outer shell is an athlete fighting the waves of nerves threatening to get the best of him.

“He does get a little more nervous because the amount of turns he takes gets exponentially higher,” Shimizu said.

However, Lee transforms into a soft-hearted and compassionate leader the second he steps away from competition. Always there for his teammates in gymnastics and academics, he’s the one to comfort his teammates when things get rough. Whenever Lee faces difficulties of his own, he also knows he has his teammates to rely on.

One such example is freshman Tyler Shimizu. When asked about a fictional character that reminds him of Lee, Shimizu responded with “Shrek.”

“People definitely have a bad image about him because of his intensity, but once you get to know him, you really understand that he’s a good person inside,” said Shimizu.

His coaches at Cal have also had a profound impact on Lee as well. Falling in love with the training plans head coach J.T. Okada makes for him every season, there is no place Lee would rather go. The emotional support system he has at Cal is also stronger than ever, and although his family is an ocean away, he’s continuously surrounded by those who truly support and care about him.

“J.T. always makes me feel really welcome,” Lee said. “I’m glad that he and Brian gave me a chance to be a leader on the team.”

Photo of Yu-Chen Lee

There’s an old Chinese saying, “to come out of the silt unstained.” Derived from the purity and beauty of a lotus sprouting through silty soil on the banks of a pond, the proverb describes someone who is able to rise above challenges to success.

Like the lotus, Lee finds the strength to stand tall, rising up from the relentless, indescribable hardships thrown his way. The journey ahead is still very long, but as his mother said, “if you have a goal, just go for it, no matter how many barriers you have to face.”

Yuqing Qiu covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].

APRIL 21, 2022

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