Expectations of U’s Lee continue to rise as NCAA meet approaches

Jacob Lee came to Minnesota as a highly touted recruit.

Kent Erdahl

When the phrase “Big Ten freshman of the year” is spoken around the University campus, a member of the men’s basketball team might rush to students’ minds.

But according to Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger, there is another Big Ten freshman of the year on campus that has been as valuable as Kris Humphries.

Minnesota freshman gymnast Jacob Lee came in to his first season with similarly high expectations – at least from his coach – and has become a major contributor to the No. 11 team in the nation.

Lee, a Saratoga Springs, Utah, native, was a highly touted recruit who committed to Minnesota after earning two Utah state all-around titles as a high school sophomore and senior.

In his first season, Lee has made an impact on his team with several key performances, including a 9.350 score on a high bar routine that secured a Gophers dual victory against higher-ranked Nebraska on March 6.

Lee’s impact was noticed by more than his team when he won the Big Ten freshman of the year honors after finishing 15th in the all-around with a score of 52.1 at the conference championship earlier this month.

“I knew I had a chance to win it,” Lee said. “It makes me feel happy that I’m ranked so high with other coaches as well.”

According to Roethlisberger, Lee’s success has not only been valuable to the Gophers, it has been essential.

“We’re really lacking in depth,” he said. “We’ve just always got to have his routines.”

Stepping into such a demanding role on a top team was not something Lee was completely prepared for.

“When I first came it was really tough,” Lee said. “I was out of breath because I had to take so many turns. I wasn’t used to training so hard.”

Lee continued to struggle in his first competition, the Windy City Invitational, which featured some of the top teams in the nation.

Lee said he performed poorly because he was intimidated by the level of the other athletes, but Roethlisberger said Lee’s problem wasn’t talent.

“As skilled as he was, he wasn’t really taught to compete and hit his routines,” Roethlisberger said. “We knew the answer was more repetition.”

Lee took his coaches’ advice and began working out more. He also began paying attention to junior teammate and all-around standout Guillermo Alvarez.

“I’ve been able to see how he trains and what he actually does,” Lee said. “And it’s been able to rub off on me a little bit.”

Alvarez’s influence became quickly apparent. Lee earned his first collegiate all-around title in the fourth meet of the season, posting a score of 52.125 against Illinois-Chicago.

“That was a high point for me because I wasn’t even expected to win,” Lee said. “I just kind of snuck out behind everyone and ended up in first.”

Alvarez does not view Lee’s success as surprising because of the freshman’s work ethic.

“If he’s having a hard time with a routine he pushes through,” Alvarez said. “A lot of other guys would just drop it, but he’s got a high tolerance for discomfort, and he works real well with it.”

Lee has maintained his work ethic and positive outlook throughout the season, despite several highs and lows.

He credits his adjustment and outlook to another teammate, who has had similar experiences in his first season.

Fellow Gophers freshman and all-around competitor Steven Vuong competed on the same club team in Utah. The two have trained together since they were 15 years old.

“It’s good to have such a close friend on the team,” Lee said. “We just push each other to get even better.”

Now Lee and the rest of the Gophers will get the opportunity to do something not everyone can: compete at the NCAA Championships this weekend in Champaign, Ill.

If Minnesota wants to perform well it will again look to Lee for an unexpected freshman performance.

“What this team needs is some people who are extremely skilled and big-time gymnasts,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what he brings.”