There's been a ton of upheaval among the U.S. gymnastics team (opens in new tab) during the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics: After gymnast Simone Biles quit the team finals (opens in new tab) and individual all-round, attention turned to the other members of the team, particularly Sunisa "Suni" Lee, the first Hmong American gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. Lee did not disappoint, taking home the gold medal in a bit of an upset: She's only the sixth American gymnast to ever do so, and the fifth consecutive American to win gold at the Olympics. Not only that, but a 2020 injury—a fractured ankle—had been bothering the athlete, making her win all the more impressive. So now Olympic viewers are wondering: who is this incredible gymnast, whose performance might have been the most exciting and nail-biting event at the Tokyo Olympics? Here's what we know about her.
Who is Sunisa Lee?
The 18-year-old gymnast attends Auburn University Gymnastics (opens in new tab) and is in the class of 2025. Her parents John Lee and Yeev Thoj immigrated from Laos, and she has five siblings. Her father, whom she says "sacrificed everything" so she could pursue gymnastics, built a balance beam in the backyard (opens in new tab) when they couldn't afford to buy one. She started training when she was 6 years old, and has been on the women's national gymnastics team six times.
Lee has also had her share of personal setbacks (opens in new tab) recently, and it wasn't always clear that she was headed to the 2019 Olympics. Her father suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019 and is now paralyzed from the waist down—and Lee was forced to compete in the national championship almost immediately after.
In June 2020, she helped win team gold at the world championship (and came closer to Biles than anyone had in a long time), then she fractured her ankle in a fall and had to sit out for months. She lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19 (she had to say goodbye over Zoom) and thought she might have contracted the virus herself. In interviews, she's said a gold medal win would be for her father, family, and the Hmong community. "I fought off the negative thoughts and the sadness, and just focused. Now I feel like I’m maybe tougher because of it. No, not maybe. I am tougher because of it," she told the New York Times (opens in new tab).
Lee also told ELLE (opens in new tab) she's been devastated by the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, saying, “People hate on us for no reason ... It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say.” She said she also felt depressed when the Olympics were postponed.
She's supportive of her teammates, including Simone Biles.
Surprisingly, Lee and Biles became close after the Olympics announcement, and they two chatted regularly in the months between when the Games were supposed to start and the actual start date. At the Games, after Biles announced her withdrawal and the U.S. team went on to win silver, Lee filled Biles' spot on the floor. It was “the most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life," she explained (opens in new tab). Reporters have said that she's spent the majority of her career (like a lot of other gymnasts) in Biles' shadow (opens in new tab). But thanks in part to Lee's performance, the U.S. team took home silver.
Lee also shared an Instagram post to praise and support Biles after the withdrawal, saying (opens in new tab), "proud of you & everything you’ve accomplished! thank you for being a role model and someone i look up to every single day. you not only inspire me as a gymnast but as a person as well. your fearlessness and ability to do the impossible does not go unnoticed, we love you!! 🤍"
Lee's epic performance at the Tokyo Olympics was nail-biting.
With a final score of 57.433, Lee edged out Brazilian Rebecca Andrade by just over 0.1. It came down to the wire: Lee opened with a difficult Yurchenko double twist on the vault, then an uneven performance (opens in new tab) and 15.3 on the bars and a strong 13.833 on beam. Heading into the final rotation on floor, which Andrade is apparently stronger at, Lee gave an incredibly strong performance—her personal best in Tokyo—and Andrade went out of bounds. In essence, Lee out-performed herself on three of the four categories to pull off a win. Lee's community had a watch party at home, and they went crazy when they watched Lee's win.
She did it. @sunisalee_ is the queen of the women’s gymnastics all-around finals and her parents. OMG. Tears every where. 🥺 #Gold #TokyoOlympics #hmong pic.twitter.com/n2xM7VJOPqJuly 29, 2021
Lee has been enjoying her hard-earned success ever since — including after Olympian gymnast Aly Raisman asked her for her autograph (opens in new tab) and Lee absolutely fan-girled out. In an interview with Hoda Kotb (opens in new tab), Lee dedicated the win to her dad, saying, "This has been our dream forever...I wish he was here. 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."
But John told reporters, "I’m going to tell her I’m so proud of her ... I want to tell her team that no matter what, you all support her and I want to tell Simone that she truly is the GOAT because she let my baby girl bring the gold medal."
Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.
The Agenda: Los Angeles
How to prepare for a visit to the City of Angels.
By Brooke Knappenberger
Our Editor's Favorite Curl-Defining Leave-In Conditioner Doubles As a Moisturizer for Skin
Stay hydrated, stay happy.
By Gabrielle Ulubay
Lucy Liu Opened Up About Her Decision to Have a Child Via Surrogate in Her Late 40s: "I Didn't Have a Plan"
It felt like the right time for her.
By Iris Goldsztajn
'Ginny & Georgia' Season 2: Everything We Know
Netflix owes us answers after that ending.
By Zoe Guy
The Unstoppable Alia Bhatt
Bollywood’s silver-screen darling is both at the top of her game and just getting started.
By Neha Prakash
'Firefly Lane' Season 2: Everything We Know
In the immortal words of Tully Hart, "Firefly Lane girls forever!"
By Andrea Park
The 30 Best Movies on Hulu Right Now
From 'Fight Club' to '10 Things I Hate About You.'
By Brooke Knappenberger
Queen Elizabeth Has Passed Away at 96
After a 70-year reign, the queen passed away at her home in Balmoral, Scotland.
By Jenny Hollander
The 50 Best '80s Movies
An official ranking of the decade's standout films.
By Quinci LeGardye
Elizabeth Lail and Dustin Milligan Compete in 'How Well Do You Know Your Co-Star?'
The stars of 'Mack & Rita' could barely hold it together during a round of trivia.
By Brooke Knappenberger
Charli XCX Isn't Here to Appease Anyone
The pop star talks authenticity, her new album, and taking care of herself while on tour.
By Gabrielle Ulubay