Lee of US wins all-around gymnastics gold medal
By Juliet Macur
For years, Sunisa Lee, a teenager from Minnesota who became the Olympic all-around gymnastics champion Thursday night, wasn’t training just for herself.
Lee, a Hmong American, went to the gym every day for all the first-generation Americans who wanted to achieve success when their parents had come to the United States with nothing. And she trained through grueling practices and painful injuries for her father, John, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019 and now uses a wheelchair.
Lee, 18, came into the Olympics wanting to win a gold medal for her father, who is her biggest fan, and for all the Hmong Americans who she feels are unseen in the United States. But she had publicly stated that her goal was to win silver in the all-around because teammate Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic medalist, had been considered a lock to win that title.
But after a lifetime of chasing Biles in the all-around because Biles hasn’t lost that marquee event since 2013, Lee took advantage of her shot to do so in Tokyo. Biles, considered the best gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team event and the all-around because of mental stress, leaving Lee in position to win it all.
“I didn’t even think I’d ever get here,” Lee said. “It doesn’t even feel like I’m in real life.”
On Thursday, Lee hit routine after routine, often as if she were at practice, not at the most important competition of her life. She even nailed the floor exercise in her last rotation, with new choreography and elements that had been changed by her coach, Jess Graba, that morning. They had decided to take out her fourth tumbling pass because her left ankle, which she fractured last year, hasn’t completely healed, leading to poor landings — and big deductions — for that final pass.
The change worked. Lee had her best floor exercise score of these Olympics.
Rebeca Andrade of Brazil won silver, and Angelina Melnikova of Russia won the bronze.
Graba, Lee’s coach since she was in elementary school, knew that she could hit her new routine — and the other routines, too. From the start, he believed she was a special athlete, one that had “a lot of spunk” and was fearless. He and his wife, Lee’s other coach, Alison Lim, worked closely together to usher Lee to the top of the sport but also keep the sport fun.
Winning, of course, was also important. Graba said he and Lee often discussed winning the Olympic gold medal, even in the era of Biles, because he knew she had the potential to do it under the right circumstances. Even if Biles had been in the competition in Tokyo, he said, he thought Lee could come close to beating her.
“Too much of the conversation has been about one person,” Graba said, adding that he was thrilled that the world has had a chance to see Lee at her best and appreciate her, as he and his wife have done for more than a decade. “I thought she was this good all the time. I feel best that everybody else got to see it. She finally got to show it.”
Lee’s gold in the all-around, which determines the best overall gymnast, came just two days after she rallied her teammates to win silver in the team final. Biles had pulled out of the team event after competing on the vault, the first of four events. On the next event, the uneven bars, Lee decided to perform her hardest bars routine — the most difficult in the world — instead of the easier one she had planned because she knew the team would need every tenth of a point to win a medal. Her 15.4 points on bars was the highest score of the night.
Later, Lee competed on the floor exercise after not practicing her floor routine for two days because her coach wanted to spare her ankle. She wasn’t initially selected to perform the floor exercise at the team final because each country chooses only three of its four gymnasts to compete on each apparatus. With Biles out, though, Lee had little choice.
During the all-around, Lee brought the same resolve to make it to the podium. And in the end, she made it to the top of it.
Before the medal ceremony, she FaceTimed her family, which had been watching the competition from a large hall near her home in St. Paul. A huge contingent of family and friends, many from the Hmong American community, had joined them. She talked to her father first, saying, “I did it!”
They both cried.