Team USA’s gymnasts have had some of the most coveted and sought-after success stories of the Summer Olympic Games. The United States has won consecutive gold medals for years, continuously stunning viewers around the world. Delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Summer 2020 Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, Japan, in July 2021, and while the circumstances surrounding them were undoubtedly altered, Team USA’s women’s gymnastics team maintained its knockout status.
One standout gymnast in particular, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, has skyrocketed to stardom. However, it has not always been easy for the young star, and her journey to the Tokyo Olympics was far from smooth.
Hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee has a lengthy record of success in the gymnastics world. She holds the title of the 9th-most decorated American female gymnast, securing her spot among all-time gymnastics superstars such as Gabby Douglas and Kyla Ross. In the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Lee won the all-around gold medal and bronze in the uneven bars, along with the overall silver medal for Team USA.
Lee was not always optimistic about winning the gold; she was competing with “gold medal lock” Simone Biles. However, a window of opportunity opened following Biles’ withdrawal from the all-around individual finals competition due to health concerns. Biles’ action came as a shock to the gymnastics community, many of whom consider her the greatest gymnast of all time. But the attention of Team USA fans quickly shifted to Sunisa Lee and her incredible potential to be the all-around winner at the 2020 Olympics.
“‘I didn’t even think I could be competing for a gold medal; I was convinced I’d compete for a silver medal. To be here is just crazy to me,’” said Lee in an article with The New York Times.
The pressure on Lee to live up to Simone Biles’ legacy was surely overwhelming, but she attacked the challenge gracefully and expertly. Though there is a six-year age gap between the two athletes, Lee and Biles are now friends and close teammates, which only inspired Lee to “pick up where [Biles] left off” and to “go out there and have the best competition of [her] life,” as was further stated by the New York Times.
The praise for Lee is unending. On top of being one of the most charismatic and humble medal winners for Team USA, she is also the first Hmong American Olympian to ever take on the Village. Lee’s heritage has had a huge impact on her life and her values; both of her parents immigrated to the United States from Laos in order to give Lee and her five siblings a better life, as stated in an article for Elle Magazine. Lee’s victory is not only a great personal accomplishment, but also one for the hundreds of family members and friends who form her support team — as well as for the Asian American community, which has greatly suffered in recent months due to nationwide anti-Asian violence.
“‘People hate on us for no reason. It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say,’” Lee told Elle Magazine.
Lee’s victory has not only come from a place of hardship on an international level. The events of the past years have made it exponentially difficult for the young gymnast to fully focus and prepare herself for the impending Olympic games.
Just days before Lee was set to compete in the 2019 National Championships, her father, John Lee, suffered a tragic fall from a ladder while trimming a tree, causing him to be paralyzed from the waist down. Rather than give up, as many believed that she would, Lee persisted and won the silver all-around medal. While her father was unable to attend the competition in person, he was able to FaceTime Lee beforehand and send her loving well-wishes.
Lee’s relationship with her father has indubitably led to much of her success in the gymnastics world. From an early age, he has remained her biggest supporter and played a primary role in facilitating her training, from building a makeshift balance beam in their home and teaching her to flip on a mattress to making sure she never missed a practice at the gym. Lee attributes all of her successes to her parents.
Following John’s accident, the Lees were fearful of what the future held for their family. John’s condition put him at risk for future medical hardship. Unfortunately, their fears were brought to life with the rise of COVID-19. Both Lee’s aunt and uncle fell victim to the virus and were not able to recover, while Lee, falling ill herself, attempted to self-quarantine within her home to keep her father safe.
While the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were widely felt, the pressure on young athletes to find a way to continue their training became a grim reality. Lee’s gym in St. Paul closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, and she was left without proper training facilities until it was eventually able to re-open months later.
As if everything else circulating around her wasn’t enough, Lee broke her foot upon her return to the gym, casting her out of practice for another three months. The agony that she felt is not something that many young adults could relate to, as her gymnastics endeavors are truly extraordinary. However, not all has been bleak. Following her recovery from her injury, and as the world began to heal from the rampant effects of COVID-19, Lee has been able to embrace some of the “silver linings” from her time spent away from the gym and at home with her family, as stated in her interview with Elle Magazine.
While the young athlete’s gymnastics journey is far from over, Lee is opening a new chapter for herself this fall. She is enrolling in Auburn University’s Class of 2025 and competing for their collegiate gymnastics team.
“‘That’s my way of celebrating: going to college,’” said Lee to The Washington Post.
Lee’s incredible journey to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is truly one of perseverance, dedication and love. Her thousands of supporters, both near and far, cheer her on as she continues to work toward her aspirations, gymnastics and beyond.