Cal men’s gymnastics sixth-years Darren Wong and Miles Lee exemplify true leadership

By Aidan Giusti | March 2, 2024
Cal men’s gymnastics Darren Wong (left) and Miles Lee (right)
© Cal Athletics

Most people don’t continue sports beyond high school, fewer go on to compete at the Division I level, and next to none get the opportunity to do it for six years. Darren Wong and Miles Lee both seized the opportunity to return to UC Berkeley for a fifth, and now sixth, year to compete for the gymnastics team.

When I first started planning this story, I was going to focus on the fact that they were both sixth-year international students; Darren is from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and Yu-Chen “Miles” Lee is from Taipei, Taiwan. As I began writing, I realized there was a much more important story that needed to be told.

After a combined 12 years on the team and a few too many injuries, the thing that stood out the most about Darren and Miles was their leadership. They joined Cal in fall 2018 as freshmen and will leave in 2024 not as named captains but experienced leaders who are training the next generation of Bears and solidifying the future of Cal men’s gymnastics… and men’s gymnastics in the NCAA. 

I sat down with Cal Head Coach JT Okada and Associate Head Coach Bryan Del Castillo to learn more about their relationship with Darren and Miles. Speaking on their recruitment, Okada knew that they both had loads of talent and discipline that would prove to be beneficial for the team. Okada mentioned that Cal has a rich history of international gymnastics, and Darren and Miles joining the team would further this legacy.

Darren was a former Canadian National Team member, and Okada would see him around at National Team camps. Paired with the fact that Darren’s old club teammate, Aaron Mah, was a successful Cal Bear, Okada saw “what a good fit [Darren] would be on the team.” While Darren was a more traditional international student, Okada mentioned that he didn’t realize Miles was from Taiwan until later in the recruitment process. He always knew Miles as a California gymnast, seeing him at various camps and clinics in California growing up. What stood out to Okada was Miles’ hard work and discipline. 

Darren’s collegiate journey was unconventional to say the least. After a strong rookie season, the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by poorly-timed injuries, quickly consumed his career. He tore both of his Achilles and his ACL over the next three years. Instead of accepting defeat, Darren took a step back and used his experience and gymnastics expertise to guide his teammates from the sidelines.

Senior and current captain of the team Noah Newfeld said, “Darren has a lot of wisdom; he’s seen the highs and lows of gymnastics.” Newfeld spoke to the many conversations he and Darren had in and out of the gym, talking for hours about character and analyzing what it means to be a leader. Expressing the utmost gratitude, Newfeld says, “Darren’s a big influence on me growing into a leadership role. It was the countless late nights and deep conversations that helped me learn and grow.” Darren was not in a position to motivate his teammates with his gymnastics, so he used his words and knowledge of the sport instead.

When asked about what kind of legacy he wants to leave, Darren said, “I want to be seen as a leader, a mentor, and most importantly a good gymnast; someone who worked hard and was a resource for others.” According to the team, Darren is more than a teammate, “He’s a leader, a mentor, and a third coach.”

Del Castillo said one of Darren’s strengths is how he communicates with the guys on the team. “We don’t hear what the conversations are about, but we hear how impactful they are and we can see how these conversations change the team’s mindset for the better.”

Darren had every right to walk away from gymnastics, but the sport and his teammates were too important to him.

Senior David Rauchwerger called Darren a “superhero”, saying he’s “one of the most mentally tough gymnasts I’ve ever met. [He] sat on the sideline for three years and watched his teammates do the sport he loves. It had to be mentally taxing… it’s amazing to see his commitment and motivation to continue fighting.”

One can only imagine the internal battles Darren fought to find his drive and to continue to this day. As a former teammate myself, I can attest to the role Darren played on the team. If you ask him, he would probably say it was nothing, but to the rest of the team, his wisdom, his experiences, and his presence is reassuring and inspiring. 

If you ask anyone who knows Miles Lee what kind of person he is, they will tell you he is the hardest working person they have ever met. Head Coach Okada said, “Never once in six years have I [seen] Miles phone it in.” Whether it be practice, competition, or rehab, Miles is locked in and gives it 100% every single time.

For the first two-thirds of his career, Miles led by example, acting as the role model and target for the rest of the team. Newfeld talked about the “duo-type situation” he and Miles had; both being all-arounders, the two would often group up and keep each other accountable during training. Newfeld said his favorite memories with Miles were “challenging each other to finish pre-meet and feeding off each other’s energy and motivation in training every day.” 

Similar to Darren, injuries controlled the second half of Miles’ collegiate career and forced him to take his foot off the gas pedal. Speaking about this new role on the team, Miles said, “Injuries helped me learn what being a part of a team is. I had to learn a new type of leadership.”

Despite the obstacles Miles has faced, he said the silver lining is that, “People show you they care. I’m grateful because this new role has shown me what a real team looks like.” He says this year is his favorite, mainly because he has learned a lot and transformed as a gymnast and as a person over the last six years, and he feels like he truly knows what it means to be a part of a team and how he can best contribute in and out of the gym.

Rauchwerger said it’s been inspiring to see Miles grow into this leadership role, admitting he got to see another side of him. “Miles is there every step of the way and is the biggest cheerleader and has the most outpouring support for his brothers on the team. His mentality is so inspirational, and I can’t wait to see him back on the floor this year.”

Besides his work ethic, my favorite thing about Miles when I was on the team was his positivity and awareness. He always made you feel heard and respected both in and out of the gym, and he was always the first one to pick you up when you were down. 

Darren and Miles share similar mindsets in their sixth season. They are most excited for what they call the “grind.” They’re eager to get back out there and give it their all with their brothers.

Miles said, “Darren and I would talk about taking a sixth year together a lot… I know what I’m capable of, and I want to go back to competing for Cal and being a vital member of the team. I don’t have any regrets at all – this decision is about so much more than myself. I’m doing this for me, but I’m also doing this for the seniors who were not given the opportunity to return after COVID hit in 2020. I just want to finish strong.”

Darren and Miles are both looking forward to competing with each other one final time as well as getting one final season with the team.

Speaking on the importance of the team, Wong said, “Gymnastics is an individual sport, and being at Cal was the first time that I really experienced being on a team. The guys are my brothers, and we go through hell together. It has been such a special and life-changing experience that taking a sixth year was a no-brainer for me.”

Darren and Miles’ tenacity and commitment to themselves and their team is inspiring. While both served as team captain for a couple of seasons, they are taking a step back this year. Coach Okada said, “Darren and Miles are taking the next step in terms of leadership. They are both impactful with their insight and experiences, but they don’t need to be out front anymore. They are helping to develop new leaders.”

There’s a certain level of maturity that is needed to be grateful for your experiences as a captain and then transition to work on empowering others and building a strong foundation for years to come.

Over the last six years, Darren and Miles have become great leaders and even better people. There’s not a doubt in my mind that the two will give it their all while living in the present and soaking in every moment of their final season.

On behalf of myself and the Cal men’s gymnastics program, Darren and Miles, thank you for everything.