Suni Lee just accomplished what no one expected three days ago – not even herself.
“This is such a surreal moment. I just feel like I could have never been here ever. It doesn’t even feel like real life,” the 18-year-old said after winning the most coveted medal in gymnastics.
Lee is the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics and is now the women’s gymnastics all-around champion.
She also extended the United States’ 17-year winning streak in that competition – a dynasty that seemed in jeopardy this week when the previous Olympic all-around champ, Simone Biles, announced her withdrawal.
But Lee’s historic performance – highlighted by the most difficult, astonishing uneven bars routine in the world – also capped an immensely difficult journey.
She’s been marred by injuries, lost an aunt and uncle to Covid-19 and grappled with a horrific accident that left her father paralyzed.
In 2019, her father John was helping a neighbor trim a tree when he fell and became paralyzed from the waist down.
The father of six had supported Lee’s gymnastics from the beginning – helping her perform tricks around the house, sometimes to the frustration of her mother.
“I was always jumping on the bed or having my dad spot me while I was doing backflips and stuff like that,” Lee told TwinCities.com. “Finally, my mom got tired of it” – and that’s when she enrolled in gymnastics.
But the family had limited means, so John Lee built a balance beam in the backyard for Suni to practice on, the father told NBC.
Just days after her father’s devastating accident, Suni Lee made her senior debut at the US gymnastics championships – competing in honor of her father.
At age 16, she defied expectations – capturing the gold medal on uneven bars, the bronze on the floor exercise, and the silver in the all-around – just behind Biles.
Now, at age 18, Lee joins an elite list of American Olympic all-around champions: Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles.
Back home in Minnesota, John Lee pumped his fist in the air as he watched his daughter reach the pinnacle of her sport.
“There’s no words to describe how we feel right now,” John Lee told CNN affiliate WCCO.
Suni’s mother, Yeev Thoj, said her daughter has made immense sacrifices to achieve her dream.
“All the injuries … she has a bad day, then she’ll come home so stressed about it and crying – that has finally paid off,” Thoj told WCCO.
“She’s a gold medalist. And I’m super proud as a mom.”
It’s an achievement that almost didn’t happen.
“There was a point in time where I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever get here,” Lee said after her victory.
“So there’s 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. It’s just so surreal, and I haven’t even let it sink in yet.”