Suni Lee on Olympic gold medal – “It would not really feel like actual life”
12:19 p.m. ET
- Alyssa Roenigk is Senior Writer for ESPN, whose assignments have taken her to six continents and countless recklessnesses. (Follow @alyroe on Twitter).
Suni Lee never expected that she could win everything.
With her U.S. teammates in the stands and family gathering at a watch party at home in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee became the fifth straight American to win all-round Olympic gold.
When the results were announced, the gymnast, who introduced herself to the wider sports world as Team USA’s stoic, calm rock this week at the Tokyo Olympics, let go of tears.
“The waiting game was something I hated so much, but when I saw my score at the top it was so emotional,” Lee said after the meeting. “It doesn’t feel like real life.”
It was a difficult and unexpected road to this moment for Lee, the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics and now the group’s first Olympic gold medalist. Lee is also the first Asian woman of any nationality to win Olympic gold in an all-around competition.
Suni Lee’s parents, Yeev Thoj and John Lee, pictured in the center, at a watch party with Lee’s friends and family on Thursday. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images
“My community is so great,” said Lee. “They all watched together and saw me win a gold medal. A lot of people in the Hmong community don’t get what they want and I want them to know that you can make your dreams come true and never give up.”
Like many athletes, Lee struggled when the games were postponed. She wondered if she would regain her skills after such a long time outside the gym, or if it was her tough job to train one more year past the finish line she had ridden throughout her elite career. She was struggling with depression. She told her parents that she wanted to be done with the sport.
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When she returned to her Little Canada, Minnesota gym in June 2020, she fractured her left foot just a week after training, a setback that delayed her return and an injury that is still painful. She chose to only make three passes in her floor routine on Thursday, rather than the four she did in Tuesday’s team final.
Last summer, when her father John continued to recover from a fall from a ladder in 2019 that left him paralyzed under his chest, Lee’s family came to terms with the loss of their aunt and uncle to COVID-19. Your city was rocked by protests following the murder of George Floyd. John calls this “the hardest time” for his family.
But with the support of her coaches and large, close-knit family, Lee returned to focus on her goal of forming the Olympic team. As she watched her father, whom she calls her best friend, struggle for his independence and learn new skills to help him cope with life without the use of his legs, Lee was inspired by his commitment and positive attitude. His encouraging conversations before the meeting calmed her nerves. Her father’s jokes drove her mad.
When she returned to competition earlier this year, Lee finished the three biggest encounters of the season just behind Simone Biles. On the second day of the US Exams, Lee had a higher total number of points in one day than Biles, the first gymnast to achieve this in more than eight years.
After that performance, Lee said she knew she could beat Biles, which gave her confidence, but it didn’t change her goals in Tokyo. Biles has won all national, international, world championships and Olympic games in which she has participated since 2013. Winning the all-round Olympic title in Biles’ time did not seem like a serious pursuit for any gymnast. “I wanted to fight for a silver medal,” said Lee on Thursday.
Suni Lee led the US team to the silver medal on Tuesday and now also has Olympic gold. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
But then Biles pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday after a rotation because he had to take care of her mental health. Without its star, the United States deserved a silver medal. Lee jumped in for Biles on the floor and hit all four of her routines. Her score on the uneven bars was the highest in the encounter.
Then, on Wednesday, the reigning Olympic gold medalist announced her withdrawal from the all-around event, and suddenly, for the first time in nearly a decade, the all-around gold was up for grabs. “I had to change gears,” said Lee. “We all came to fight for second place and I was second all season [Biles]. The pressure was great. People were counting on me to finish second or win the gold medal. But I tried not to focus on it or I would have been too nervous. “
Lee’s ability to stay focused under pressure even when the world around her is out of control or when a routine isn’t going as perfectly as planned earned her gold on Thursday. During her bar exercise, which has the highest starting value in the world, Lee wasn’t perfect, but she made corrections without a break, making connections and again outperforming any gymnast in competition. She made an impossible-looking parade on the beam when her foot nearly missed the beam at the end of a triple wolf turn.
Lee went into the last rotation on the floor and led Brazilian Rebeca Andrade by only a tenth of a point. As she stood surrounded by her competitors waiting to go to the ground, Lee looked casual, if impatient, and waved to the people in the stands. Her behavior was more of a queuing-for-ice cream than a turn-of-all-Olympic gold.
Once on the ground, Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee jumped to first place after a strong, clean performance at the start of the rotation. But Lee responded and returned to the top of the leaderboard, with only Andrade and American Jade Carey, who replaced Biles in the meeting, left to perform.
Andrade is one of the most dynamic and charismatic floor workers in the world and will fight for gold at this event. But she bounced out on her first pass and got off a second time on the third. Her score wasn’t enough to outperform Lee. But with silver, Andrade became the first Latin American gymnast to win an all-around medal. Melnikova took bronze.
Only three tenths of a point separated the three medal winners.
Before the award ceremony, Lee FaceTimed gathered her family, more than 100 strong, at a local event center to watch the meeting. “I did it!” Lee said she yelled into her phone. “And then we all started crying. It was a very surreal moment.”
One of the Lee family’s favorite videos features the future Olympic gymnast and her father on a Florida beach.
And one Lee said that she and her father had dreamed about it for years. In that dream, John and all of Lee’s family were with her in Tokyo. “We always talked about it,” said Lee. “If I won a gold medal, he’d come down and do a backflip with me.” It’s something they did together before John’s accident, often traveling to their meetings. A popular family video shows Suni and John, aged 8, throwing backflips from a lounge chair on a Florida beach.
“It’s so sad he couldn’t be here,” said Lee. “But he was practically here. It’s our dream.”