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Suni Lee was representing the United States when she won gold in the women's individual all-around gymnastics final on Thursday — but after a challenging couple of years, she was especially motivated to win for her family, her Hmong community back home and herself.
"It feels super crazy, I definitely didn't think I'd be here in this moment with the gold medal," Lee said after her win. "I'm just super proud of myself for making it here because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit."
The 18-year-old from Minnesota competed at the 2019 U.S. National Gymnastics Championships two days after her father, John Lee — her staunchest supporter — fell from a ladder and became paralyzed.
She considered skipping the championships, but her father from the hospital encouraged her to continue. She told NBC's "TODAY" she thought of him "the whole time and it helped me a lot."
She went on to take gold on uneven bars, second place in the all-around and third in the floor exercise.
Then, in 2020, when Covid hit, she was forced to pause training. During the pandemic, she lost her aunt and uncle to the virus. And shortly after returning to gymnastics in June 2020, she injured her ankle, putting her back out of commission for three months.
The pause, she told People, helped her "mentally and physically."
"Right now, mentally it's helped because it makes me want this even more," she said. "I want to do it for my family and coaches obviously, but I also want to do it for myself. I've just been through so much."
Tokyo, though, came with its own disappointment — Lee's family was unable to be in the stands to cheer her on due to Covid restrictions.
"This has been our dream for like the longest, basically since I was a baby," she said of her and her dad.
"I wish he was here," she told Hoda Kotb after her win on Thursday. "He always told me if I win the gold medal he would come out on the ground and do a backflip. It's sad that he can't be here, but this is our dream and this our medal."
"We both worked for this. He sacrificed everything to put me in gymnastics. Both my parents really have," said Lee, who has five siblings. "This is my family's medal, my medal, my coach's medal."
Lee, who is headed to Auburn University in the fall, told The New York Times that she got into gymnastics when she was 6 years old after getting hooked on YouTube videos of the sport. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” she said. “It looked so fun, and I wanted to try it myself.”
John Lee told NBC's "TODAY" that, to get her started, he built her a balance beam in the backyard since the family couldn't afford one.
"He’s been by my side through everything, and he’s done all my competitions with me," Lee said.
While her family's absence in Japan is "heartbreaking," Lee told People, "I think they're going to have a little watch party."
Sure enough, Lee's family and dozens of loved ones and supporters in St. Paul, were watching together Thursday and erupted into cheers when it was clear she would be bringing home the gold.
Lee told Elle magazine in May that her Hmong community back home is "really close."
Her success, she said, "means a lot to the Hmong community ... and to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too."
Lee had already made history as the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics, and Thursday made more when she became the first Asian American woman to win gold in the Olympics’ all-around competition.
Lee, who also won silver at the Tokyo Games in the team final Tuesday, will go on to compete for titles in the bars and beam finals next week.
It's unclear if her teammate, Simone Biles, will join her at the individual finals after pulling out of the team and all-around events to focus on her mental health.
Lee noted the decision was a game-changer for her, as Biles was the presumptive favorite for gold.
"It was a lot to take in, just because I was coming in to take a silver spot, but I feel like I just kind of went out there and did it for myself," she said.
Lee has the most difficult uneven bars routine in the world. Her seamless flow from one move to another on not only the bars, but also the mat and the beam, is what sets her apart.
"I feel like people see me as a specialist on bars, which I feel like I have a lot more to give than just that ... I think if I’m able to maintain, then I’m a good all-arounder," she told "TODAY."
In her USA team bio, she lists her favorite event as the balance beam.
Other favorites: the "Full House" spinoff "Fuller House," Harry Potter books, the 2011 rom-com "Just Go With It" and pasta.
Responding to the bio question, "How did you get involved with gymnastics?," she answered: "It was fun, and I like to do flips."