In this, the age of COVID, family celebrations of Olympic glory are shared via satellite from remote locations back home, rather than from the stands of venues such as Japan’s Ariake Gymnastics Center.
So there the cameras were, ready and aimed at the growing gallery of Sunisa Lee supporters who’d gathered in Minnesota’s early-morning hours Thursday to watch the women’s gymnastics all-around finals. They were perfectly positioned to capture Lee’s moment of gold-medal glory, and the cacophony of joy that arose inside the Brothers Event Center in Oakdale, Minn., was something to behold.
Amid the circle of celebration, John Lee’s clenched fist rose above them all, even as it reached skyward from a wheelchair. For that is the hand that cradled Sunisa when she was small, the one that built her a backyard wooden balance beam when she began in the sport, the one that supported her when she wobbled or took the wheel of the family car to drive her to practice.
It is also the one that slipped while John Lee was trimming a tree in 2019, an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. It was a devastating turn for the family, and yet their story now is one of triumph not tragedy, a uniquely beautiful American tale of immigrants lifting themselves to success, all the way to the top of the Olympic podium.
Yet even for Sunisa, the newest women’s all-around gold medalist, this turn of events was hardly one to be believed, leaving her almost at a loss for words as she tried to capture what she was feeling. She managed to use the word “surreal” more than once while acknowledging, “I haven’t even let it sink in yet.”
Who could blame her? For so long, this had been Simone Biles’s competition to win, and it was Biles who headed to Tokyo as the prohibitive favorite for a second straight all-around gold. But when Biles decided she was not fit to compete, wisely pulling herself from competition in deference to the mental challenges that put her safety at risk, a door swung open for Lee.
She proved ready to step through. And in her wake comes an entire community.
The Lees are part of St. Paul’s large Hmong population, an ethnic group primarily from areas of Vietnam, Laos, and China. During the Vietnam War, Hmong tribes sided with US troops, and were recruited by the CIA to fight a covert military operation in Laos. But when they were left behind after American troops departed, many chose to flee, eventually resettling first in Thailand and then in the United States, largely in Minnesota. That’s where Sunisa’s gymnastics dream was born, one nurtured by parents who proved willing to see big things for their little girl.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Koua Yang, the athletic director at St. Paul’s Como Park Senior High School, himself a Hmong refugee who arrived in 1980. “We have 18 clans in our culture, and like every ethnic group, everyone has a sense of pride in their own clan.
“Suni unites everyone. This is the highest level possible, and to be that face is amazing. Coming from a culture that is very traditional — obviously it’s evolved here in the United States — but where women in general are not given the same opportunity as the males, for her to shine through, is just great for her. For America No. 1, for the community.
“I’ve had so many students messaging me who are so happy to see a local kid who won a gold medal. They can see that what seemed like an unrealistic goal is reality now. It’s possible.”
Possible even when it seemed improbable, back to 2019 when Sunisa competed in the world championships only days after her father’s accident. Back to the onset of a pandemic that stole the original iteration of these Games from last summer and sent Sunisa into a depression. Back to the dangers of the virus that robbed Sunisa of a beloved aunt and uncle, both of whom succumbed to its ravages. Back to the broken foot she sustained not long after finally getting back in the gym. Back to only a few days ago, when it seemed she would, as usual, be competing for second place behind her dominant teammate.
But there was Biles on Thursday, doing so much of what she had done during the pandemic down time. Talking to Lee, supporting her, cheering for her, ultimately congratulating her on a victory that takes its rightful place in the history books.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with COVID and my family and everything else,” Lee said behind a microphone in Japan, her eyes still wide with wonder. “This medal definitely means a lot to me, because there was a point in time where I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever get here. There’s definitely a lot of emotions, but I’m super proud for sticking with it and believing in myself.”
She believed through her final floor exercise routine, waiting out the score of the night’s final competitor, Rebeca Andrade of Brazil, hopeful she had done enough. That the slight balance check on beam as Lee spun on one toe, avoiding a fall through sheer will and amazing core strength, wouldn’t cost her the gold. It paid off, and while she celebrated on site, those back home were with her in spirit.
“It was an iconic moment,” Punnarith Koy said over the phone. Koy coached Lee through the ages of 6-12 at her home gym, Midwest Gymnastics, and he made sure to stop at the watch party before heading to the gym for a busy summer day with the gymnasts.
“It’s the biggest moment in our gym’s history, to have such representation, such a proud moment, to share it with her family too. I was driving in my car to work and I couldn’t help but be choked up. I’m getting emotional now. It’s amazing.”