Update: On Thursday, Suni Lee won a Gold medal in the Olympics individual all-around gymnastics event. Rebeca Andrade from Brazil went home with Silver, and Russia's Angelina Melnikova took home Bronze. Lee's win comes just days after Simone Biles, who was expected to take home a win in the individual event, withdrew from the all-around competition. Lee is the first Hmong American athlete to make a U.S. Olympic team, and the first to medal at the Games.
This story was originally published on Monday, July 26, 2021.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics has an impressive roster of athletes — but none quite as exciting as the U.S. women's gymnastics team. Between Simone Biles defying gravity and Jade Carey's unique floor tricks, viewers are taking note of the team's newest member Sunisa "Suni" Lee. On Sunday, the 18-year-old Minnesota native scored 15.2 points on the uneven bars — the highest score so far during the competition — with a near-perfect execution of the rare Nabieva skill.
Lee's sharp execution of the Nabieva at the Olympic trials in June ended up being one for the history books: not only did she come in first in the uneven bars trial, as well as the balance beam competition, but she also became the first Hmong American athlete to make a U.S. Olympic team. "Right now, I'm just trying to compete for everybody, for the Hmong community, my dad and my family," she said after making the team. "I want them to be proud of me."
The world is now watching in awe of her high-scoring bar tricks, but Lee's rising star status — which began in 2015, and continued in 2018 and 2019, when she won gold as a member of the Pacific Rim Championships and the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, respectively — did hit several rough patches along the way. In 2019, her dad became paralyzed from the neck down following a ladder accident. Shortly after, her aunt and uncle died from COVID-19.
"I thought [my dad] was going to pass away when he was in the hospital, so I didn't want to go to nationals and compete. But he told me to go, that he really wanted me to go. So I did," Suni told The New York Times after her father's accident. "Now I realize that if he didn't push me like that, I wouldn't be in the spot I am right now with the Olympics so close."
At the height of the pandemic, Lee also suffered from her own injury when she broke her foot. Her recovery, despite a sore Achilles tendon, didn't seem to be of consequence to her during the Olympic trials: she became the first gymnast in any phase to beat fellow teammate Simone Biles since 2013.
"I think what helps me not focus on everything else that's going on is just honestly going into the gym and working towards the Olympics every single day," Lee told the official Olympics coverage site in June. "Because that's the one thing that will always keep me motivated... It's something I've wanted for so long, and I'm not going to give up until I make the Olympic team."
Lee also credits the support of her community, family, and everyone rooting for her in getting her through a turbulent few years on the road to the Olympics. "The whole Hmong community is so proud of her,'' Lee's aunt Judy Yang said on Friday during a celebratory gathering of Lee's family in St. Paul. Her loved ones held a khi tes — a Hmong celebration — in honor of Lee's accomplishments.
Her participation in the Olympics "means a lot to the Hmong community..." Lee recently told People. "And to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too."