klahoma men’s gymnastics redshirt senior Josh Yee grew up in Mililani, Hawaii, which is located just northwest of the capital city of Honolulu on the island of O’ahu. A tropical paradise yes, but perhaps not a place known for turning out gymnastics talent.
Still, Yee grew up in a gym and loved the sport. He was determined to make it big and wanted to compete collegiately. After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, there was no doubt where he wanted to do it.
“It was kind of crazy, I guess,” Yee said of his college decision. “My parents definitely wanted me to stay close and I definitely wanted something that was kind of similar to Hawaii, but it was always a dream of mine to come to Oklahoma because for gymnastics, it’s the place to go. I watched the 2012 Olympics and four of those guys were from Oklahoma. That was my dream throughout middle school and high school.”
"It was always a dream of mine to come to Oklahoma because for gymnastics, it’s the place to go. I watched the 2012 Olympics and four of those guys were from Oklahoma."
- Josh Yee
Those dreams were thrown a curve when, at the age of 14, Yee’s lifelong coach accepted a collegiate coaching position and moved away. In perhaps the most formative years of his junior career, Yee was on his own. With only the help of YouTube videos and plenty of gym access, he got to work.
“I didn’t have a coach throughout my whole high school career,” Yee said. “I just coached myself and that’s why my gymnastics was a little different. I actually didn’t have all the technique down, I just kind of went by feeling, watched videos, and tried Olympic stuff.”
That pursuit became his life. School, gymnastics, homework, more gymnastics and repeat.
“I would practice forever because I knew everything was going to take a lot longer for me because I didn’t have anyone giving me feedback, or telling me what’s right what’s wrong,” Yee recalled. “I worked out a ridiculous amount throughout high school, I didn’t take any days off for a really long time. I would just work out every single day, during Christmas, Thanksgiving, every single day because I knew that if I wanted to catch up to the guys who are really good then I’d have to work twice as hard.”
Yee’s work made him the top prospect in the state of Hawaii and Oklahoma head coach Mark Williams was keeping an eye on him.
“Josh was a kid that had a lot of potential, but having trained in Hawaii he didn’t have near the kind of competition that you see on the mainland,” Williams said. “He was a little raw, but he stayed in communication with me and he had some really good high bar skills and was pretty good on floor and vault. When Jake Dalton went pro I had a scholarship available and he was a kid we recruited but hadn’t signed. Into the summer he was still available so we made a deal where I’d offer him a scholarship for a year and bring him in and see how things went.”
Josh Yee (left) celebrates with teammates after the Sooners clinched the 2016 NCAA national title.
But making the transition to collegiate gymnastics at Oklahoma proved to be a tall task. Largely self-taught, Yee had to go back to the fundamentals and relearn how to do even basic skills. He had to learn how to train at the Sooners’ famously difficult level and he had to do it all while adjusting to classes and college life thousands of miles from home.
“I remember my first week here, Mark was just going into me and I was just like ‘what did I get myself into?’ I was freaking out,” Yee remembered. “It was really tough for me to understand that I had to go all the way back to basics. I think it was more mentally tough than anything. Physically, it is always tough but I can handle that. I know that will go away, but mentally it was a struggle.”
In Yee’s freshman season at Oklahoma he competed sparingly. He contributed on a few events but wasn’t making a big impact on the team. With a loaded roster ready to compete for a title in 2014, Williams had to make a tough choice.
“We got to the place where he hadn’t really helped the team scores and I had a bunch of other good guys and we had a roster limit,” Williams explained. “We went into the second year and he was cut from the roster. He trained with the club team for four or five months. For him that was kind of a shock. He had come in and had an expectation to be part of the team and in his first year he contributed a little bit, but I had a pretty strong team and it was hard to make the roster.”
"I was just like ‘what did I get myself into?’ I was freaking out,”
“That is when I was like maybe I should just leave,” Yee said of being cut from the team. “He straight up told me that he wouldn’t blame me if I went to another school for scholarship money. He said if I wanted to be part of this team, it would be smart to stay here. I could keep training because he knew that I was going to make it back on. I trusted his word and I worked with Nori (Iwai) and the other club guys after practice and did that for a whole semester, got a lot better and made it all the way out.”
Yee got to work. No longer on the NCAA roster, he had to work out with the club team which practices in the same gym but after the OU team. He would come in early and stay until the last person left the gym. To Yee it felt like being back at home, training alone.
“It was definitely a déjà vu,” said Yee. “I was like okay it makes sense, I knew what he was saying was right. I trusted it and I was like alright, I know my body can handle this. I know just physically that this will go away, the pain, you just have to push yourself and eventually you will make it. I wanted to give everything that I had because I knew that if I gave everything I had, and I didn’t make it then that’s fine because I did everything in my possible power that I can do. It’s kind of the motto just give everything that you have and in the end it will work out.”
Yee (center) holds the trophy as the 2016 Sooners pose after their second straight NCAA national title. Yee was one of three co-captains in 2016.
Having torn himself down and rebuilt his gymnastics from the ground up, Yee earned his way back onto the team for the 2015 season. The Sooners had just wrapped up a fourth straight runner-up finish in 2014 and just like Yee, they were hungry.
“It was a little bit more nerve racking, actually because I had just gotten back and that team was so ready to win,” Yee said of the 2015 squad. “They had gotten second four years in a row, and they were just ready. I was like ‘I want to be a part of this’. I didn’t take it lightly. If you wanted help you had to be good.”
Oklahoma captured its ninth NCAA national title that season, won every meet it competed in and broke scoring records along the way. Headed into 2016 the outlook called for much of the same. Winning and more winning. An All-American on vault the year before, Yee’s position on the team was secure and was about to get even more significant.
“The guys voted for him as a team captain and I was really surprised by that,” Williams remembered. “I probably wouldn’t have made that choice myself, just because he wasn’t doing very many events and captains usually do a lot of event. You want them on the floor throughout the completion. But Josh has a strong voice with this team and the guys understood that and they picked him.”
Along with two other fellow co-captains Yee led the Sooner to yet another unbeaten national title, giving the Sooners their fourth repeat in program history and the third under Williams.
Yee had spent that season working under the assumption that it would be his last, but he had an extra year available to him. He could return and chase a third consecutive title if he wanted to. For the second time in his life, Williams was recruiting him.
"I have known what it is like to be good, to be on bottom and what it is like to be in between. I have a lot to share with these guys, and I teach them how to push themselves no matter what.
- Josh Yee
“There wasn’t any thought that he would be back this year,” Williams said. “He went through last year as if it was his last time around. I kept having small conversations with him about ‘you know you still have one year of eligibility left. You don’t have to be done. Maybe you haven’t met all the goals you’d like to.’”
“I kind of made Mark sweat it out,” Yee said with a grin. “I talked about it with my parents for a while and kind of came to the final decision, but I waited a couple of weeks. Then right before I went home, I met with Mark and he was like so I need to know if I have a captain for the summer. I was like ‘I have talked about it a lot with the team, my parents and everything and I still want to be a part of this.’”
This season, Yee’s fifth with the Sooners, no team vote would be required. Williams named Yee one of his team captains. Having trod the path from self-taught high school gymnast, to being cut from the team, to winning a pair of NCAA titles and becoming an All-American, Yee’s leadership is now perhaps Oklahoma’s most valuable asset.
“I guess the guys can see me helping them out,” Yee said. “I have kind of seen every spectrum. I have known what it is like to be good, to be on bottom and what it is like to be in between. I have a lot to share with these guys, and I teach them how to push themselves no matter what. Even if they are at the bottom, you can push yourselves to get to everyone else. Or you are at the top and you push yourself even more to help the team out even more.”
The Sooners have won or come in first in every meet they have competed in since Yee made his return in 2015, racking up a program-record 56 straight wins in that span. He is determined to make that trend last through his graduation in May.
“I want to see that fire in this team, like I did last year,” Yee said. “It can kind of start to disappear when you have won two years in a row and people think ‘oh we just win.’ I want to see that fire in them. I just want to see them get excited, I want this team to not let up even if this season goes amazing and we go undefeated and we win again. I don’t want to see these guys anything for granted. I just want to see that fire and see them enjoy it.”
“Sometimes you kind of forget to enjoy gymnastics, you take it really seriously and that is what I tell these guys. That you aren’t going to be doing this forever so really take the moments in and enjoy it because you are going to remember these for the rest of your lives.”