Sunisa Lee wanted Sunisa to leave during quarantine.
All of it was getting too much. A broken foot that left a lingering pain. Two family members die from COVID-19. Slow recovery of her father from an accident that left his paralysed.
It eventually gave up. It does every time. The gymnast, aged 18, was still able to walk around the podium at U.S. championships less than two months ago, relying more on her grit than any other skill.
Tokyo seemed distant. Even further, the Olympic podium’s top.
Then, suddenly, she was there on Thursday night. A tinny rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” echoed through Ariake Gymnastics Centre. A gold medal was around her neck. Watch party in Minnesota among her Hmong-American neighbors. It was a victory she could not have hoped for.
After winning the Olympic all around title, Lee declared that it was “crazy” after a close duel with Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. It doesn’t feel like real life.
Lee was able to walk again after the pain subsided. It was funny how her foot kept getting better as she trained. She arrived in Japan with the belief that she had a chance at a silver medal. She had beaten Simone Biles, her friend and Olympic champion, on the last day of the U.S Olympic Trials. But that was an exception.
Biles decided to leave the competition after eight years of dominating the sport. She wanted to concentrate on her mental well-being.
All was on the table. All the gold was included. Lee won it with a stunning set on uneven bars, a nervous performance on beam, and a floor exercise that more than compensated for its lack of aggression in execution.
Andrade was second with 57.433 Points, but she missed out on gold after she failed to return in bounds twice during her floor exercise.
Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova won bronze in addition to the gold medal she received in the team final. American Jade Carey finished eighth in the competition, joining the contest after Biles pulled out.
Biles’ decision not to stand out resulted in the startling sight of Lee and the rest the 24-woman field cheering on Lee from the stands, with the gold that she’s held for so many years now in play for everyone.
Lee tried to forget about the stakes. John, her father, was paralysed from the chest down in a freak accident in Minnesota. She FaceTimed him before the meet. He advised her to relax. So she did. She tried.
Lee admitted that she was getting “into her head” while preparing for her bar routine. It is the most difficult in the world. She didn’t look particularly nervous. She was rewarded by the judges with 15.300 points for her intricate connections and release. This result tied Andrade’s nearly perfect Cheng vault for the highest score.
Lee’s brilliance was not what made the difference, but her guts. While performing a wolf spin, which is basically a seated turn, she nearly fell off the balance beam. To keep her on the wood slab 4 inches thick, she had to suction cup both of her toes. She was able to score 13.833 and move ahead of Andrade as she entered the floor exercise.
Lee chose to do a first routine that included three tumbling passes rather than four. She hoped better execution would outweigh any potential tenths she might have lost by not performing a fourth pass. Andrade was able to take advantage of her 13.700, although it was not steady.
Two years after a third surgery to fix a torn ACL in her leg, the 21-year old Brazilian had the highest floor score among the qualifiers. She stumbled with both her feet after her first tumble pass. Her right foot stepped onto the blue carpet and off the white mat.
Andrade was required to have a 13.802 in order to win. Instead, she received a 13.666. She didn’t seem to care. She was not sure she would make the trip to Tokyo until she won all-around at Pan American Championships two month ago. As she witnessed her country’s flag being raised at an Olympic gymnastics ceremony, she was moved to tears.
She said, “This medal represents Brazil.”
However, the Americans still hold the gold. Lee’s win was the fifth consecutive by a U.S. women, the previous three Olympic champions being all women of color.
Biles and Gabby Douglas, 2012 gold medalist, are both Black. Lee’s parents, Hmong (an ethnic group that has historically lived in the mountains of Southeast Asia), are Hmong. Lee’s parents immigrated from Laos to Minnesota where there is the highest concentration of Hmong Americans. Her family and friends gathered in Minneapolis to witness her making history. In a community that she feels is too restrictive, she hopes to see Hmongs standing before the world and at the top of their sport.
She stated, “I want people know that they can achieve their dreams and can do whatever they want to do.” Because you never know what will happen in the end.