Elliott: Sunisa Lee wins gymnastics all-around gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

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-TOKYO,JAPAN July 29, 2021: USA's Sunisa Lee competes on the floor exercise in the women's individual all-around final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times)
U.S. gymnast Suni Lee competes in floor exercise during the women's all-around final. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When Suni Lee first showed interest in gymnastics, her father, John, built her a wooden balance beam in the family’s backyard in St. Paul, Minn., because they couldn’t afford to buy one. He’d always given her a pre-competition pep talk, and she vividly imagined how he’d join her someday to celebrate an Olympic triumph.

Her dream shifted shape when John fell off a ladder and was paralyzed from the waist down two years ago. She nearly gave up the dream and quit gymnastics when she broke her foot a year ago and lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19.

Learning that Tokyo Olympic organizers wouldn’t allow foreign visitors to attend the Games also hit her hard. Her parents were her strength. She couldn’t imagine them not being by her side.

John and her mother, Yeev were thousands of miles from Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Thursday when 18-year-old Suni seized the lead after the third of four rotations and held on through the floor exercise to win the women’s all-around gold medal. Her margin of victory was a nail-biting .135 over Rebeca Andrade of Brazil, who twice went out of bounds during her own floor routine and was marked down .4.

U.S. gymnast Suni Lee reacts to winning the gold medal in the women's all-around competition.
U.S. gymnast Suni Lee reacts to winning the gold medal in the women's all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Distant though her parents were, Lee felt her father was close in her heart when she looked up at the scoreboard and saw she had made their dream come true.

“We’ve always talked about this,” Lee said, “like, if I were to win a gold medal he would come out on the floor and do a backflip with me. It sucks he’s not here, but virtually they’re here.”

Lee’s foot injury hadn't fully healed when she established herself as a medal contender by performing stunningly difficult uneven bars routines while finishing second to Simone Biles at the U.S. championships and the U.S. Olympic trials. But Biles, whose five medals at the 2016 Rio Games included the all-around title, was the prohibitive favorite to win as many as six gold medals here-- until she withdrew from the team and all-around competitions to safeguard her fragile mental health. That shocking turn changed everything for everyone.

“I came into this competition I didn’t even think that I could be competing for a gold medal. I was thinking to compete for a silver medal, but to be here is just crazy,” said Lee, who has committed to competing for Auburn University.

Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars at the Olympics on Thursday.
Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars at the Olympics on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Biles and the other American women watched from the stands and cheered on Thursday while Lee earned 57.433 points. Andrade, who overcame three knee surgeries during her career, earned the silver medal with 57.298 points and became the first Brazilian woman to win an Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics.

Angelina Melnikova, who helped the Russian Olympic Committee defeat the American women in the team competition on Tuesday, won the bronze medal with 57.199 points. Jade Carey, who replaced Biles in the all-around event, finished eighth with 54.199 points.

“It was a very interesting finals because there was a mystery who will be the champion, who will take the gold medal,” Melnikova said through a translator. “And I am extremely happy for Sunisa Lee and Rebeca because they worked very good and I knew my difficulty score wasn’t very high.”

Lee’s victory brought light and life to a stripped-down, often joyless Olympics. It also entwined several strands of significant cultural and historic notes.

She became the sixth American woman to win an Olympic all-around title, starting with Mary Lou Retton in 1984. Twenty years later, Carly Patterson began a string of five straight winners which continued with Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012, and Biles in 2016. Each of last three is a woman of color: Douglas and Biles are Black and Lee is Hmong, an ethnic group scattered throughout southeast Asia.

Lee said she appreciates the support of her Hmong neighbors but also wants to help them elevate themselves. “I just feel like many people from the Hmong community don’t try and ever reach their goals. It’s just like very restricted,” she said.

“So I’d like people to know you can reach your dreams and you can just do what you want to do because you never know what’s going to happen in the end. So don’t ever give up on your dreams….They really don’t put their heart into it, but I think I proved when you put your heart into it, you can do something great with it.”

Biles’ absence on Thursday created an opportunity for Lee, but it also took away the motherly advice Biles freely gave Lee during meets. “It’s sad I couldn’t have Simone on the floor with me,” Lee said, “but to even have her in the arena was very helpful because she is an inspiration to me and somebody that I look up to.”

Lee and Carey created their own support system, embracing and encouraging one another. “She did amazing. She did everything I know she can do. She made all her routines and I’m really proud of her,” Carey said. “She is a really great teammate. We had a lot of fun out there. We just kept it light and fun.”

That was no easy feat. “Going into this meet I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me because I had been second to [Biles] the whole season basically, so I knew that people were kind of counting on me to either get second or win the gold medal,” Lee said. “I tried not to focus on that because I knew I would get too nervous, and it just wouldn’t have been good.”

She stayed true to herself and to her dream, even though it didn’t unfold exactly as she had hoped it would. But it’s not over yet: She qualified for the event finals on the balance beam and uneven bars and will be a medal contender in both events. “It’s crazy,” she said, but maybe it’s not so crazy to see the results of hard work and dreaming big.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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