Sunisa Lee called Simone Biles her idol during an interview with the New York Times in July 2020.
A year later, Lee, who overcame injury in 2019 and the loss of two family members to COVID-19, put her own talent on display for all to see as she stepped out of the shadow of her friend and famous teammate.
Just as Biles did before her in 2016, Lee extended the United States’ dominance in the women’s Olympic all-around on Tuesday night, outdueling Brazilian Rebeca Andrade and ROC athlete Angelina Melnikova to win gold. Lee’s triumph was historic, as she is the first Hmong-American to make a U.S. Olympic team.
When Biles withdrew from the all-around competition earlier in the week for mental health reasons, the intense glare of the spotlight shone on Lee, who many labeled as the Americans’ best hope without Biles.
It was perhaps a sign the sports world at large had not, in fact, fully appreciated some of the reasons behind Biles’ withdrawal, as the weight and the pressure of public expectation and scrutiny that had built up over several years was simply shifted to Lee in a matter of days.
Biles and the U.S. team, however, quickly, unburdened her. They told her to block out everything else and focus on her own performance.
“I was starting to put a little bit too much pressure on myself knowing that Simone was gone,” Lee said. “I feel like people kind of put that pressure on me that I had to come back with a medal. So I tried not to think about it and that’s what they told me to do, to just focus on myself and do what I normally do. Because that’s when I compete the best.”
The two years leading up to Lee’s victory were tough.
She competed at the world championships in 2019 just two months after her father fell from a tree and became partially paralyzed.
She lost two relatives to COVID-19 in 2020 and broke her left foot during training later in the year. Complications stemming from the broken foot led to Achilles tendinitis.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with COVID and just my family and everything else,” Lee said. “This medal definitely means a lot to me, because there was a point in time where I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever get here.
“There are definitely a lot of emotions, but I’m super proud of myself for sticking with it and believing in myself because this medal would not be possible without my coaches, the medical team, my parents and it is just so surreal.”
Lee arrived in Tokyo like many other gymnasts, going for gold but hoping for at least silver with Biles’ position at the top of the sport seeming unassailable. When Biles pulled out, it suddenly opened up the race for gold and changed the mindset of many of the competitors.
“It was different for me, because Simone is incredible,” said Andrade, who was seen as one of the favorites with Biles out of the picture. “Knowing how she had to leave the competition was very difficult.
“People need to understand that we are not robots. We are human beings and we have feelings like anyone else.”
Lee set the tone early with a high-scoring vault, only to be surpassed by Andrade, who performed a difficult Cheng vault, a maneuver that saw her get great height and twist through the air before sticking the landing for a score of 15.300 to Lee’s 14.600.
Lee scored higher on the uneven bars and was second behind Andrade after two rotations.
Lee averted disaster on the balance beam, managing to regain her balance after a triple wolf turn, where the competitor spins with one leg bent and the other extended out to the side.
She ended the rotation in the lead with Andrade just behind.
Lee followed up with an exciting performance on the floor that gave her a high enough score to move past Melnikova, who led at that point.
Andrade was next and needed 13.802 for gold. She lost precious points by going out of bounds and ended up with 13.666, good enough for silver but not enough to deny Lee the gold.
Lee has gone through a lot, but she also had a lot of wind in her sails in Tokyo. Her teammates were behind her, she chatted with her father beforehand and anchor Hoda Kotb, from U.S. broadcaster NBC, was fist-pumping and toe tapping to Lee’s every move like a proud parent.
Most importantly, Lee was also in her own corner.
“I just talk to myself,” she said when asked how she deals with mounting pressure. “Because I know what I’m capable of and that I had to hit the best routines of my life to get here. So I just stay focused and I just try not to think about winning a medal or anything like that because either way, I would’ve been proud of myself for competing here.”
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