Entering her fifth year at UCLA in 2016, Christine Peng-Peng Lee was excited to be in what she thought was her final season of gymnastics. She loved the sport, but she was mentally and emotionally drained from the staggering number of injuries she had suffered and eager to begin the next chapter of her life.
But it turned out the sport wasn't quite done with her.
During that year, Lee had been approached by head coach Valorie Kondos Field about potentially petitioning the NCAA for an additional season for the following year. Due to an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her left knee and multiple surgeries to repair it, Lee had missed her entire first two seasons of competition. At first, Lee was certain she wasn't interested in another season, though.
But a funny a thing happened throughout the year -- she was enjoying gymnastics in a way she hadn't in a long time. She loved her teammates, the opportunity to be a leader, and, perhaps most important, she was actually healthy for the first time in as long as she could remember. By the end of the season, she told Kondos Field she had reconsidered and wanted to see if she could stay for one more year.
Lee hadn't heard the NCAA's ruling by the time she needed to decide if she would participate in graduation ceremonies, so she walked with her classmates and received her diploma. Soon after, she got word she could come back for a rarely granted sixth year.
Fast-forward to the present and the 24-year-old Lee is the specialist to watch entering the 2018 NCAA national championships this weekend in St. Louis. Ranked No. 1 in the nation on balance beam and No. 9 on uneven bars, she has scored a combined five perfect 10s this season, and even achieved a perfect meet, earning 10s on both events during a dual competition in March against Stanford.
While many athletes talk about being team-first but privately are focused on their own achievements, Lee isn't just talking the talk. In fact, being a valuable member of the team because of her personality and leadership skills is what she considers her best asset. It's something she learned during her most consequential injury during her time in elite gymnastics.
Lee, who was born and raised in the Toronto area, was one of Canada's best gymnasts and looked to be a lock for the 2012 Olympic team. But she tore the ACL during podium training ahead of the 2012 Canadian national championships and had to withdraw from competition. It was a devastating moment, but the national team recognized her contributions off of the gym floor and still made her its honorary captain.
"I was initially bummed out that I didn't get to compete, but I took being named the team captain and traveling with the team to London as such an honor," she said. "It showed to me they wanted more than just my gymnastics. And I think that's exactly what I have learned over all these injuries -- it's more than just your gymnastics. And I try and tell the girls who are competing that being a team player, being extremely supportive to other people, is very important."
Lee fell in love with the UCLA campus the moment she set foot on it and didn't even bother looking at other schools. She headed to Westwood soon after the Games in the fall of 2012 and redshirted her freshman season after undergoing ACL surgery. She was disappointed to be sidelined, but she soon realized it also was an opportunity to have a normal college experience for a bit and meet people outside of athletics.
During her sophomore year, it was discovered that the ACL graft (taken from a cadaver) used during her first operation had disintegrated. She had to undergo a revision surgery and was forced to spend yet another year unable to compete. This setback was harder to take.
She finally made her long-awaited collegiate debut during her junior year -- and proved she was one of the best in the country. She won both bars and beam (and placed fifth on vault) in her first meet in almost three years. But for Lee, it was just a relief to be competing again. She finished the season by earning second-team All-America honors at the national championships on her two signature events.
The healthy stretch wouldn't last long, though. Lee injured her thumb in the preseason of her second year competing and needed surgery. She opened the 2016 season competing only on beam as she recovered. Then a few weeks into the season, she heard a popping sound in the same left knee that had had all of the surgeries. An MRI revealed it was a torn meniscus. She underwent yet another surgery.
Lee said it was the first time she ever seriously considered walking away from the sport.
"It was just so difficult. I finally successfully completed my first year with no injuries, and then had these come up," she said. "I remember saying, 'You know what? It might just be my time to leave.' Your body can only take so much.
"But what kept me motivated was being on a team. I think if I wasn't on a team, I wouldn't have had a sole purpose. And I think that's why I was very ready to quit for a while because I felt like I had no purpose on the team during that time. But, like I did [with the Canadian national team], I tried to bring a good and positive attitude to help encourage my teammates however I could and that kept me going."
Lee missed five meets and returned in time for the 2016 NCAA regionals, where she competed on bars -- and won. She then went on to contribute solid scores on that event in the semifinals and finals of the national championships.
During what she believed to be her final year of eligibility, Lee and Kondos Field mutually decided she would just focus on her two best events in hopes of preventing further injury. It was a decision that proved to be the right one. Lee had her best collegiate season, racking up accolade after accolade. She earned her first perfect 10 on bars in February and notched just the second 10 score on beam in NCAA Super Six team final history at championships. She was named the Pac-12's Specialist of the Year, and earned first-team All-American honors on bars. Lee was even honored with UCLA's Courage & Character Award for overcoming adversity.
It felt like everything was finally clicking (and thankfully not in the noise-in-the-knee sense). She was relishing her role as the team's emotional leader, and she was able to be a mentor-type figure to the team's highly touted freshmen, Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, and the rest of the underclassmen.
"She is just so supportive," said teammate Katelyn Ohashi. "She's so free-spirited and uplifting. It's amazing because she's like a kid almost, in a good way, but she also knows how to be serious and say exactly what you need to hear. She's helped me so much with my mentality and emotions. She's a great teammate."
Lee has been able to spend her additional year on campus adding a theater minor to her undergraduate degree in sociology. She never had the chance to take any theater classes during her first five years, and is loving the opportunity to further her skills as a performer. She's hoping to remain in Los Angeles after the school year and would like to pursue a career in entertainment, perhaps in acting or as a stunt double.
But before she takes on Hollywood, she's got one last meet to compete in, and she wants to give all she has in hopes of leading UCLA to its first national title since 2010. With some of the most difficult skills ever done in collegiate gymnastics, Lee stands out every time she competes. While a championship would undoubtedly cement her status as one of the school's greatest gymnasts in a storied line, she wants to be remembered more than anything for her spirit and never-quit attitude.
"Character is the most important thing to me, and that's the legacy I want to leave behind," she said. "Not really so much what I've accomplished, but more so my character, because I think that's what people remember the most. I've learned so much about character building through my injuries and struggles. Not competing at the Olympics doesn't define me -- I still was an important part of that team because I helped them mentally and emotionally.
"And you never know where certain things will lead you. If I didn't tear my ACL, I wouldn't be here now having the opportunities I have with this team. Life always moves forward, and you have to embrace it and just go with it."