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Under an Unexpected Spotlight, Suni Lee Shines

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/29/2021 Stephanie Apstein
a person in the air © Provided by Sports Illustrated

With first place suddenly open, the 18-year-old gymnast made all of the right adjustments to win the gold medal in the individual all-around.

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TOKYO — Hours before doing what she had never imagined, Suni Lee decided to do something she had never tried.

For seven months, her coach, Jess Graba, had been trying to convince her to lower the difficulty of her floor routine, reasoning that she could improve her score by nailing the execution on the easier option. Lee, whose bubbly personality belies what Graba called a “tough as nails” personality, was too competitive to make the change. “We were arguing a lot,” Graba said. But as the Olympics progressed, and Lee watched the way the judges were scoring her landings harshly, she began to consider Graba’s suggestion.

On Thursday morning, she drew up new choreography. On Thursday night, she won gold in the individual all-around event. How many times had she practiced the championship-winning floor routine?

“Zero,” said Graba. “Zero.”

Lee, 18, has done a lot of improvising this week. When Simone Biles pulled out of Tuesday’s team all-around final after one rotation, Lee had to sub in on the floor routine, which she had not practiced at all that day. Her 13.666 preserved the U.S.’s silver medal. When Biles pulled out of the individual all-around on Wednesday, Lee had to adjust her entire mentality.

“I just kind of had to switch gears,” she said. “We were coming in to compete for second place.”

Suddenly, first place was available. She held it heading into the fourth rotation, the floor exercise. Her 14.600 on vault tied her career best. So did her 15.300 on the uneven bars, her specialty. She looked shaky on the balance beam but managed a 13.833 to pull ahead of Rebeca Andrade of Brazil.

“I knew that wasn’t the best beam routine, so I knew I needed to do a really good floor routine,” Lee said. “I was really nervous.”

Graba likes to tell her to train for gold but compete for fun. That sounds good but can be hard to execute. Lee feels the weight of expectations. She knows what she means to people.

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To her parents: Two days before she was supposed to leave for her first senior nationals, in 2019, her father fell from a ladder. They had once done backflips together. Now he was paralyzed from the chest down. He gives her pep talks before every event, including this one: “He told me not to focus on the scores or anything like that, because in their hearts I was already a winner, and he was so proud of me no matter what,” she said. Still, she wanted to succeed for him.

To her community: She is the first Hmong-American Olympian. So many people in her hometown of St. Paul wanted to watch her compete that her family rented out the Brothers Event Center in nearby Oakdale. The event began at 5:50 a.m. local time, so dozens of people crowded in with coffee and breakfast. “I wish that all of them could be here, because it was just such an amazing moment,” she said. “They are the most supportive people ever, and I just feel like many people from the Hmong community don't ever try and reach their goals, or it's just, like, very restricted, so I want people to know that you can reach your dreams, and you can just do what you want to do, because you never know what's gonna happen in the end, so don't ever give up on your dreams.”

To her country: Lee’s win makes her the fifth straight American to take the title, after Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in ’08, Gabby Douglas in ’12 and Biles in ’16. “I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me because I have been second to [Biles] the whole season, basically,” Lee said. “So I knew that people were kind of counting on me to either get second or win the gold medal, so I tried not to focus on that, because I knew that I would get too nervous and it just wouldn't have been good.”

Graba limited Lee's practice time this week. He also wanted to preserve her body. Last June, just as her gym reopened after three months of lockdown, she sustained an avulsion fracture to her left foot. As she recovered, fluid got into her Achilles’, and she developed tendinitis. She is still not fully healthy today.

He also wanted to combat her nerves. “I feel like my job is to bring it back down and calm her down and let her do her thing, because then she'll be O.K.,” he said.

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So as she readied herself for her floor routine, he reminded her, “This is why we’re here, to enjoy the moment. Have fun.” She thought about all those people counting on her, and she pushed them out of her mind.

She took a small hop on the landing of the first pass. She nailed the second. She nailed the third. After an interminable wait, during which Graba alternately doubted and congratulated himself for the simplified routine, the score came in: 13.700, good enough for first. Andrade, the only remaining competitor within range of gold, stepped out of bounds twice in her routine.

Lee burst into tears. She had done it for her family, for her community, for her country. She had also done it for herself. 

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