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A Whirlwind Journey Took Suni Lee From Gold To College In Less Than Three Weeks

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 12, 2021, 10 a.m. (ET)

Sunisa Lee competes on balance beam at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

The summer before college is often a whirlwind. Over the last three weeks, gymnast Suni Lee took that to another level.

On July 29, the 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, surprised even herself when she won the women’s all-around title at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She left Japan a few days later with a set of medals — gold, silver, bronze — for a brief trip to New York, followed by short stay at home, complete with a parade in her honor, before arriving on Tuesday at Auburn University, where she’ll soon be starting classes with the rest of the freshman class.

Talk about change.

Lee wasn’t exactly an unknown leading into the Tokyo Games — she’d also won a full set of medals at the 2019 world championships. She’d also earned attention by becoming the first Hmong American to make a U.S. Olympic Team. Even she wasn’t expecting to come home with the sport’s most coveted medal, though.

Leading up to Tokyo, a fan asked Lee via Instagram what her goals were for the Olympics. In a response that could be described as both realistic and best case, the gymnast outlined the medals she hoped to bring home. For the all-around, she was shooting for silver.

The lone individual gold medal she had in mind was on her signature event, the uneven bars.

Sunisa Lee competes on uneven bars at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

Everything changed quickly for Lee, and everyone else, during the women’s team final on July 27. U.S. teammate Simone Biles — the reason Lee and everyone else was chasing silver in the all-around — withdrew due to a condition known as “the twisties.”

With help from Lee’s stone cold-bars routine and on-the-fly performance on floor exercise, the shorthanded Americans managed to still come away with a team silver medal.

 

 

 



Lee’s big opportunity, however, was two days later in the all-around final.

When she later said she “was coming to compete for a silver medal,” some viewed that as textbook modesty. The fact is, among elite gymnasts, talk of winning the “Non-Simone Division” had been common even before Biles won Olympic gold in Rio. Since then, Biles had won her record fourth and fifth world all-around titles; nobody had beaten her in eight years.

With Biles out, suddenly several women who thought they’d max out at silver found themselves as bona fide contenders for gold.

Lee certainly found herself among the favorites for the esteemed title, but not necessarily the favorite. And after three rotations of going toe-to-toe with Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Lee had done about as well as she could have hoped for, yet she still went into the final rotation as not quite the favorite.

If all of the contenders really nailed their floor exercise routines, Lee had real potential of not just missing out on the gold medal but possibly even a spot on the podium.

In a master stroke, Lee and her coach, Jess Graba, decided to simplify her floor routine, taking out the fourth tumbling pass she’d been struggling with and making up the points in other ways. That decision proved key, as Lee went on to hit her best floor routine of the Olympics, while all of her top competition fell short of their scores from the qualifying round.

Lee, who had come to Tokyo seeking silver, was now the Olympic champion.

 

Sunisa Lee competes on balance beam at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.

 

“When I saw that my score came out on top it was just like so emotional,” Lee said afterward. “I didn’t think I would ever be here.”

Life changes quickly for the all-around champ. The list of American women who have claimed that title is exclusive, the members so famous they’re identifiable by their first names — Mary Lou, Carly, Nastia, Gabby and Simone.

By the time Suni could sit back for a celebratory pizza party in her Tokyo hotel room, her home state had declared that Friday “Sunisa Lee Day,” her social media grew by seven figures and, well, she was on a first-name basis with much of America.

There was a two-day break between the all-around final and the start of the individual event finals. But all the newfound attention became overwhelming at times, making it hard for Lee to prepare for the event she really wanted to win in Tokyo: uneven bars.

After scoring in the 15s on bars during the qualifying, team and all-around competitions, Lee struggled with her connections in the event final Sunday and scored 14.500. As the first performer, she settled in for what looked to be a slow-motion process of being surpassed in the standings. Instead, to her surprise, only two other gymnasts outscored her, and she ended the night with a bronze medal. Two days later, Lee closed out the Tokyo Games by finishing fifth in the balance beam finals.

 

 

 

 


The final results from Tokyo ended up not being quite what anyone predicted going in. After the bars final, even Lee seemed to be almost stunned that she had won the all-around gold but finished third on her best event.

“This medal probably means more to me than the all-around gold medal because bars is my thing,” she said.

In the height of the moment, Lee even indicated she might try to come back to elite gymnastics to go after the bars title again at the Paris Olympics in 2024. That’s a discussion for another day, though.

For Lee and her teammates, the end of the Tokyo Games meant a trip to New York for more media appearances, then fellow Minnesota gymnasts Lee and Grace McCallum were greeted by a welcome party at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport last Thursday. Three days later, Lee was the celebrated at a parade in her hometown, with many from the state’s Hmong population as well as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz among the attendees.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” Lee told the crowd, according to Minnesota Public Radio, “and I really feel all of the love and support that all of you have given me throughout my whole entire journey and especially now since — I’m an Olympic gold medalist!”

There was little time to bask in the hometown glory, though.

Just two days after the parade, Lee’s next chapter began when she arrived at Auburn to begin her freshman year. In the past, any athlete who wanted to profit from their Olympic fame had to turn professional and give up their NCAA eligibility. New so-called “name, image and likeness” rules mean Lee and others no longer have to pick one or the other.

Lee has yet to make any grand pronouncements on that front. In a way, though, the real winners in the NCAA’s decision are gymnastics fans who now get to watch the Olympic champ compete all winter for the Tigers.

Chrös McDougall

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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