There's been a ton of upheaval among the U.S. gymnastics team during the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics: After gymnast Simone Biles quit the team finals 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 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 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 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.
Lee also told ELLE 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. Reporters have said that she's spent the majority of her career (like a lot of other gymnasts) in Biles' shadow. 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, "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 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.
Lee has been enjoying her hard-earned success ever since — including after Olympian gymnast Aly Raisman asked her for her autograph and Lee absolutely fan-girled out. In an interview with Hoda Kotb, 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."