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TOKYO — For the better part of two quadrennia, the question has been how the US gymnastics team would do without Simone Biles, the greatest woman ever to don a leotard. What if she blew out a knee? What if she decided to call it a career after collecting four gold medals in Rio? What if she opted not to stick around for another year when the 2020 Games were postponed? How would the Americans fare without their Princess of Mid-Air?

The answer so far is, pretty darn well.

When Biles withdrew from Tuesday’s team event to tend to her mental health, her teammates rallied to win the silver medal behind the Russians. Then on Thursday, Sunisa Lee, the squad’s youngest member, stepped up inside the Ariake Gymnastics Centre and grabbed gold in the individual all-around.


“Coming into this competition, I didn’t think I could be competing for a gold medal,” said the 18-year-old Lee after she’d edged Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade by .135 of a point to become the first Asian American to claim the sport’s most prestigious individual crown while Biles cheered her on from the stands. “I was coming to compete for a silver medal.”

American women now have won five straight Olympic all-around titles. Not even the Soviet Union, which set the gold standard for decades, managed that. The Romanians took only two with Nadia Comaneci and Simona Amanar. The Chinese have yet to win any.

The Americans have built their dynasty in the event with exceptional depth and diversity. Two of their champions were white: Carly Patterson, who began the streak in 2004, and 2008 victor Nastia Liukin, a Russian emigre. Two were African Americans: Gabby Douglas, who won in 2012, and Biles. Lee is a Hmong American whose parents came from Laos and settled in St. Paul.


Originally there was no question that the American primacy in the all-around would continue. Biles was heavily favored to become the first woman since Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska in 1968 to retain her crown. She hadn’t lost a competition in eight years, including five world championships, and won the 2019 global title by more than 2 points.

When Biles opted out, the gold medal was up for grabs among Lee, Andrade, and Russia’s Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova.

“It was a mystery as to who would be the champion,” said Melnikova, the reigning world bronze medalist.

But it was Lee who felt the weight of expectations.

“I felt there was a lot of pressure on me because I have been second to [Biles] the whole season,” she said. “So I knew that people were kind of counting on me to either get second or win a gold medal. I tried not to focus on that because I knew I would get too nervous and I probably would have gotten in my head.”

Lee soars above the beam during the all-around.
Lee soars above the beam during the all-around.Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

Lee, who’d qualified third behind Biles and Andrade, definitely had the golden goods, most notably a killer routine on uneven bars. Her challenge was to not lose ground elsewhere, especially on the first (vault) and last (floor) events, which are her weakest.

After the vault, in which Lee scored a respectable 14.600, she was in fifth place, seven-10ths of a point behind Andrade. After bars, in which she submitted a 15.300, Lee had moved up to second, just 66-100ths off the pace. After fighting off the wobblies on balance beam for a 13.833, she took over the lead by .167 over Urazova, who’d moved up from fourth.


So it came down to floor, with Lee going on fourth after the Russians.

“I knew I had to do a really good routine,” she said. “I was really nervous, but I took out my last tumbling pass so I knew it would probably be a better score.”

What Lee couldn’t know was whether her 13.700 would be good enough to hold off Andrade, who still can elevate on thrice-repaired knees.

“The waiting game was something that I hated so much,” Lee said.

Had Andrade stayed inbounds, she would have overtaken Lee for the gold. But her two step-outs cost her four-10ths, and Lee prevailed, 57.433-57.298.

“It is so surreal,” Lee said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Her last two years were a nightmare. Her father, John, was partially paralyzed when he fell off a ladder while trimming a tree. Lee broke her foot. Then COVID turned her family upside-down, with Lee losing an aunt and uncle to the virus.

“There was one point I wanted to quit,” she said. “To be here and to be an Olympic medalist is just crazy.”

Three years ago at the national championships in Boston, Lee finished third in the junior competition. A year later, she won a world gold medal alongside Biles plus an apparatus silver and bronze. That’s how productive the US talent pipeline has been over the past two decades and how quickly it creates Olympic contenders.


So now the Americans have a silver and a gold to show for two nights’ work, with even more hardware likely to come.

It’s unclear whether Biles, who qualified for all four of next week’s event finals, will compete in any of them. But even without her, the US has an excellent chance for five more medals.

Jade Carey, who inherited Biles’s all-around spot and finished eighth, will be favored on vault and should medal on floor. Lee figures to make the podium both on bars and beam, and Mykayla Skinner on vault. That would bring the total count to seven. At Olympus, depth and diversity equal primacy.