A father's love and the embrace of an immigrant community: the improbable story of Sunisa Lee's gold medal

·5-min read

TOKYO — Sunisa Lee was standing in the middle of Ariake Gymnastics Centre, standing on the verge of Olympic glory, standing 90 seconds from fulfilling a goal that seemed impossible from her first tumbles as a 6-year-old daughter of immigrants in Minnesota until, well, about 48 hours ago.

John Lee was sitting half a world away watching his 18-year-old daughter on television, sitting in the wheelchair that has mostly confined him since an accident left him partially paralyzed, sitting in the middle of a watch party for the local Hmong community where moments like this — Olympic greatness — simply don’t happen.

They were separated, father and daughter. Yet, somehow, they couldn’t have been closer.

“This,” Suni Lee said, a gold medal draped around her neck after coming through on floor and winning the women's all-around competition, “is our dream.”

It was an improbable one. Oh, Suni had talent from Day 1, but what did her family know about elite gymnastics? Besides, she said, within the Hmongs exists a cultural hesitation to push toward big goals, to even step too far outside their close-knit families.

The Hmongs are a people from Southeast Asia who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War, got left behind and had to flee as refugees. Some made it to America, only to struggle for recognition, let alone acceptance.

They tend to stay within, Suni said, leaning on brothers and sisters and cousins and grandparents. Yet here was John Lee, who had come from Laos, not only never holding his bold, fearless daughter back, but also pushing her to consider even unthinkable heights — American heights.

You come so your children can have a better life. Why not the best life?

Why not you, he’d say? Why not us, he’d ask?

He and his wife, Yeev Thoj, would drive Suni to practice, drive her to meets, find ways to pay for new leotards and extra training. When Suni needed a balance beam at their home so she could put more hours in, John balked at the cost and simply built one himself.

They would find a way.

Gold medalist Sunisa Lee of the United States displays her medal for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gold medalist Sunisa Lee of the United States displays her medal for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

To Suni a gold medal was too much to consider. She had almost quit in 2020 during the boredom of quarantine — and again when she returned to training only to break her foot and it didn’t seem to heal. None of it seemed worth it in 2019, when two days before nationals, her dad fell while helping a neighbor trim a tree. The accident changed the course of everything.

Even when she made the Olympic team, gold wasn’t a consideration.

Her idol Simone Biles was here as well, the greatest gymnast ever, the reigning Olympic champion sitting on a nearly decade-long unbeaten streak. Biles had degrees of difficulty in her routines that made her nearly unbeatable. The gold was hers for the taking.

“I was competing for a silver medal," Lee said.

Then on Wednesday, Biles withdrew from the all-around to work on her mental health. She cited an inability to focus on a vault during Tuesday’s team event. She would spend Thursday evening in the first row, cheering Suni, American Jade Carey and just about every other gymnast here on.

“Come on, Suni,” Biles shouted as Lee stood out on that mat, about to begin the final floor routine.

Suni tried to block it all out. The stakes. The score. The voices. Even the family back at home, crowded into a banquet hall just outside St. Paul, just waiting to go wild, just waiting to chant “USA! USA!”

She could feel her dad, though, always, even as he sat so far away, sporting a “Team Suni” T-shirt and seemingly dying of nerves.

“I’ve just been telling myself, ‘Do nothing less, nothing more,’ because everything I've been doing has been pretty good so far,” Lee said.

She delivered a strong performance and surged into first place. She waited out a final routine by silver medalist Rebeca Andrade before clinching gold.

She then tried to find her phone and a quiet spot amidst the frenzy to call home.

The medal ceremony was about to begin but that wasn’t her priority. She’d climb that podium and take her necklace of gold and proudly stare up as the American flag was raised and the American anthem was played.

But first things first.

“I FaceTimed him,” Suni said.

“I was like, ‘I did it’ … and we all started crying.”

No, this was never the plan, except somehow this was always the plan. A father and a daughter and an immigrant family's why-not spirit?

Here in a back area of the gymnastics hall, trying to make sense of it all, Suni Lee’s eyes welled up again.

“We always talked about, ‘If I won a gold medal, he would come out on the floor and do a backflip with me,’” she said.

The accident and the pandemic made that impossible. And yet neither distance nor disability mattered right then.

“We were all just crying on the phone,” Suni said. “It was a very, very surreal moment. I am super proud of them. My parents are just the most amazing people in my life.

“I love them so much.”

Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed
Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed

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