On Thursday night in Tokyo, moments after Sunisa Lee was awarded the gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition, the 18-year-old American called the experience “surreal.”
And of course it was. Lee, like every other US gymnast for most of the past decade, was supposed to play second fiddle, at best, to Simone Biles in Tokyo. In 2016, Biles’s teammate Laurie Hernandez told reporters at the Olympics: “If you get silver, you’re the best, because Simone doesn’t count.”
But Biles dropped out of first the team competition and then the individual all-around, and Team USA’s hopes fell to Lee, a whiz on the uneven bars who graduated high school in the spring and is competing in her first Games. So yes, the gold must have felt surreal – but that’s only the beginning of the reason why Lee’s victory felt so improbable.
“I just feel like I could have never been here ever,” she told reporters in Tokyo. “It doesn’t even feel like real life.”
For the past two years, real life for Lee has been a series of challenges, both personally and athletically. In 2019, days before the US national championships, Lee’s father and staunch supporter, John, suffered a devastating spinal cord injury. Lee competed and scored well, and two months later, she dazzled at her first world championships. But it wasn’t long before the Covid-19 pandemic struck; just as she had begun to establish herself as a senior competitor, Lee was stuck at home, her gym closed. When she returned to training last summer, she injured her ankle and was sidelined for another three months while the pandemic raged. Lee lost an aunt and uncle to the virus, and she has admitted that she contemplated quitting gymnastics at her lowest moments.
But she persevered, and in the process, she preserved Team USA’s 17-year streak of taking gold in the women’s individual all-around. And when Lee draped her hardware around her neck, she made another kind of history, becoming the first Hmong-American gymnast to medal in the Games. (She was also the first Hmong-American to compete in Olympic gymnastics.)
Lee grew up in St Paul, Minnesota, in the area’s tight-knit Hmong community. Her parents emigrated from Laos before she was born and settled in the Twin Cities, which boasts the largest Hmong population of any US city. The Hmong people are a displaced ethnic group from southeast Asia who sided with the US in the Vietnam War and suffered massive losses. Hmong who remained in Laos after the war were conscripted into forced labor and sent to internment camps, so many, including Lee’s family, scattered.
The first Hmong immigrants arrived in Minnesota in 1975, and today, officials estimate the Hmong Population in the Minneapolis-St Paul metro area to be close to 70,000. Lee has spent her entire life in the area and trains there, at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, Minnesota.
After her gold-medal performance, videos of Lee’s family celebrating in St. Paul went viral. Minnesota governor Tim Walz named Friday “Sunisa Lee Day” in the state, which marked a point of pride for the local Hmong and greater Asian American community, which has seen a massive uptick in targeted violence over the past year.
But Lee’s victory didn’t come without its own racist and gendered rhetoric. Biles’s decision to quit ignited a firestorm among the American right; pundits called her everything from a quitter to a sociopath and made sexist observations about the standards to which fans hold female athletes. And speaking to NBC this week, Lee pushed back at the critics. “We don’t owe anybody anything,” she said. “We don’t owe you a gold medal. You’re not the one competing.”
That tenacity endeared her to many Americans, and as Biles transitions into retirement, Lee will likely become the face of women’s gymnastics in the US, a position that comes with as many pitfalls as it does perks. Unlike Biles, though, she plans to attend college in the fall after July’s NCAA decision to allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness; Lee won’t have to make the difficult choice her predecessors have to forego college in order to capitalize off her victory. Endorsement opportunities are already pouring in, and Lee is still looking forward to a few more chances at individual medals. Then she’ll travel home to celebrate with her family and pack her bags for Auburn, her university of choice.
“I’m probably going to take a couple weeks off of gym, and then go to college,” she told reporters Friday in Tokyo. “That’s my way of celebrating – going to college.”