The American gymnast won the women’s all-around title in Tokyo on Thursday ahead of Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade in second and the Russian Olympic Committee’s Angelina Melnikova in third.
Lee, who extends the USA’s run of Olympic gold medals in the event to five, scored 57.433 as teammate and 2016 all-around champion Simone Biles watched on from the stands.
Given what Lee has experienced over the past two years, no wonder the word she twice landed on to describe her victory was “surreal.”
In 2019, she won gold on uneven bars at the US Championships shortly after her father had fallen off a ladder and become paralyzed from the chest down, while last year she lost her aunt and uncle to Covid-19.
Lee, who turned 18 in March, has also overcome a spate of injuries, including a broken bone in her foot and an Achilles tendon injury last year.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with Covid and my family and everything else,” Lee told reporters at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
“This medal definitely means a lot to me because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever be here, including injuries and stuff.
“So there are a lot of emotions, but I’m definitely super proud of myself for sticking with it and believing in myself.”
Much of the build-up to the final had been dominated by Biles’ withdrawal from the event to protect her mental health. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, had pulled out of the team competition earlier this week after landing awkwardly on her vault.
Alongside her teammates Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles and MyKayla Skinner, Biles was there cheering and clapping Lee and Team USA’s Jade Carey from the stands.
The gold medal adds to the silver Lee won with Team USA in the team competition on Tuesday, and her victory means the US draws level with the Soviet Union with a record six wins in the women’s all-around.
Lee started the evening with a score of 14.600 on vault before moving into the medal positions with 15.300 on uneven bars.
Her 13.833 on balance beam handed her the lead over Andrade, and the Brazilian then stepped out twice on her floor routine to end her hopes of a gold.
“I was starting to put a little bit too much pressure on myself,” said Lee. “Knowing that Simone was gone, I feel like people kind of put that pressure on me that I had to come back with a medal.
“I tried not to think about … (and) just focus on myself and do what I normally do because that’s when I compete the best.”
Andrade, meanwhile, has her own reasons to be proud as she becomes the first woman from Brazil to win an Olympic gymnastics medal.
She qualified second for the event – behind Biles and ahead of Lee – and scored highly on vault and bars in the final. But it was Lee who took the lead on the third rotation.
“I did my best and I’m very proud of the outcome,” said Andrade. “I worked hard, I worked with my psychologist to achieve these objectives … I don’t mind if it’s gold, silver, or bronze, or even if I didn’t have any medal. I think I had a great performance and I’m very thankful for that.”
For Melnikova, her bronze medal adds to the gold she won with the ROC earlier this week.
“I am extremely happy. It has been a hard road to get here. All my dreams came true,” she said. “I basically worked for it five years and I didn’t miss any major competition in all those five years.”
Following the team and all-around events, women’s artisitc gymnastic competitions resume in Tokyo on Sunday with the vault and uneven bars events.
Correction: A caption has been updated to include Grace McCallum, who was previously misidentified by Getty Images.