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Suni Lee on her Olympic gold medal — ‘It doesn’t feel like real life’

Suni Lee never expected she could win it all.

With her U.S. teammates in the stands and her family gathered at a watch party back home in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee became the fifth straight American woman to win Olympic all-around gold.

When the results were announced, the gymnast who introduced herself to the larger sports world at the Tokyo Olympics this week as the stoic, calm rock of Team USA let loose the tears.

“The waiting game was something I hated so much, but when I saw my score came out on top, it was so emotional,” Lee said after the meet. “It doesn’t feel like real life.”

It has been a difficult and unexpected road to this moment for Lee, the first Hmong American to compete at 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 the all-around.

“My community is so amazing,” Lee said. “They were all watching together and got to see me win a gold medal. Many people from the Hmong community don’t reach their goals, and I want them to know you can reach your dreams and don’t ever give up. You never know.”

Like many athletes, Lee struggled when the Games were postponed. She questioned whether she would regain her skills after so much time out of the gym or if she had it in her to train for another year beyond the finish line she’d been racing toward her entire elite career. She dealt with bouts of depression. She told her parents she wanted to be done with the sport.

When she returned to her gym in Little Canada, Minnesota, in June 2020, she broke her left foot just a week into training, a setback that delayed her return and an injury that still causes her pain. She opted to do only three passes in her floor routine Thursday instead of the four she performed during the team final on Tuesday.

Last summer, as her father, John, continued to recover from a 2019 fall from a ladder that left him paralyzed below his chest, Lee’s family dealt with the loss of her aunt and uncle to COVID-19. Her city was rocked with protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. John calls that “the hardest time” for his family.

But with the support of her coaches and large, tight-knit family, Lee refocused on her goal of making the Olympic team. As she watched her father, whom she calls her best friend, fight to regain his independence and learn new skills to help him navigate life without the use of his legs, Lee was inspired by his commitment and positive attitude. His pre-meet pep talks calmed her nerves. His dad jokes got her out of her own head.

When she returned to competition earlier this year, Lee finished behind only Simone Biles in the three biggest meets of the season. On the second day of U.S. trials, Lee earned a higher one-day all-around score than Biles, the first gymnast in more than eight years to do so.

After that performance, Lee said knowing she could outdo Biles gave her confidence, but it didn’t change her goals in Tokyo. Biles has won every national, international, world championship and Olympic meet she’s entered since 2013. Winning the Olympic all-around title in the Time of Biles likely never seemed a serious pursuit for any gymnast. “I was coming to compete for a silver medal,” Lee said Thursday.

But then Biles withdrew from Tuesday’s team competition after one rotation, citing a need to care for her mental health. Without their star, the U.S. earned a silver medal. Lee stepped in for Biles on floor and hit all four of her routines. Her uneven bars score was the highest in the meet.

Then, on Wednesday, the defending Olympic gold medalist announced she was withdrawing from the all-around, and suddenly, for the first time in nearly a decade, the all-around gold was up for grabs. “I had to switch gears,” Lee said. “We were all coming in to compete for second, and this whole season I’ve been second to [Biles]. There was a lot of pressure. People were counting on me to get second or win the gold medal. But I tried not to focus on that or I would have been too nervous.”

Lee’s ability to stay focused under pressure, even when the world around her feels out of control or when a routine isn’t going as perfectly as planned, is what earned her gold on Thursday. During her bar routine, which has the highest start value in the world, Lee was not perfect, but she corrected without pause, made her connections and once again outscored every gymnast in the meet. On beam, she made an impossible-looking save when her foot nearly missed the beam at the end of a triple wolf turn.

Heading into the final rotation on floor, Lee led Brazilian Rebeca Andrade by only one-tenth of a point. As she stood surrounded by her competitors waiting to walk to floor, Lee looked casual, if impatient, and waved to people in the stands. Her demeanor was more waiting-in-line-for-ice-cream than one-rotation-from-Olympic-all-around-gold.

Once on floor, Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee jumped into first place early in the rotation after a strong, clean performance. But Lee answered and returned to the top of the leaderboard with only Andrade and American Jade Carey, who replaced Biles in the meet, left to perform.

Andrade is one of the most dynamic and charismatic floor workers in the world and will compete for gold in the event. But she rebounded out of bounds on her first pass and stepped out a second time on her third. Her score wasn’t enough to surpass Lee. But with silver, Andrade became the first Latin American gymnast to earn an all-around medal. Melnikova took bronze.

A mere three-tenths of a point separated the three medalists.

Before the medal ceremony, Lee FaceTimed her family, which was gathered — more than 100 strong — at a local events center to watch the meet. “I did it!” Lee said she yelled into her phone. “And then we all started crying. It was a very surreal moment.”

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One of the Lee family’s favorite home videos shows the future Olympic gymnast and her father backflipping on a Florida beach.

And one Lee said she and her dad had dreamed about for years. In that dream, John and all of Lee’s family were with her in Tokyo. “We had always talked about this,” Lee said. “That if I won a gold medal, he would come out on the floor and do a backflip with me.” It’s something they did together, often when traveling for her meets, before John’s accident. A favorite family video shows Suni and John throwing backflips off a lounge chair at a beach in Florida when she was 8.

“It’s so sad he couldn’t be here,” Lee said. “But virtually he was here. This is our dream.”

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