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TOKYO — As Sunisa Lee prepared to begin her floor routine, she knew she was 90 seconds from an improbable gold medal in what had become a wide-open women’s all-around competition.
From across the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, looking down from the front row, were her non-competing American teammates, including Simone Biles, whose decision to withdraw from an event she had dominated for nearly a decade, broke the competition wide open.
A host of gymnasts who arrived in Tokyo with little realistic hope of winning more than silver were now in the hunt for the most prestigious championship in gymnastics — Olympic all-around.
“Coming into this competition I didn’t even think I could be competing for a gold medal,” Lee said afterwards. “I was competing for a silver medal.”
No one was better positioned than Lee, who led the competition by a thin 0.101 margin with Brazilian Rebeca Andrade.
“Come on Suni,” Biles shouted.
And so Suni went.
The 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, delivered a strong 13.700 to hold off the field and win the most prestigious title in the sport — Olympic all-around champion.
“It doesn’t feel like real life,” Lee said. “I haven't even let it sink in yet.”
She extended the Americans' domination of this event, following gold medal champions Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Biles in 2016.
Lee, who will attend and compete for Auburn University next year, had, like everyone else here, expected to take a backseat to Biles. The reigning Olympic champion and five-time world champion's degree of difficulty made her almost unbeatable. Lee has called Biles her idol.
However, Biles cited an inability to focus during her routines due to mental stress and withdrew Tuesday for the American team competition after just a single rotation. She then decided to step down from this as well, replaced by teammate Jade Carey, who finished eighth with a score of 54.199.
With the opportunity for gold in front of her, Lee outlasted an extremely competitive field. The top four qualifiers — Adrade, Lee, Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova — were separated by just 0.300 points in qualifying.
She was solid throughout, remaining close to the leaders after vault, her weakest event, with a 14.600 and then surging up the standings with an excellent performance on her best discipline, uneven bars (15.300), and then a heroic one on beam (13.833), where she nearly fell trying to complete an early wolf turn.
When Andrade stepped out of bounds twice on her floor routine, the gold was hers.
Just before the medal ceremony, Lee called back to a watch party in Minnesota to speak to her mother and father, who is partially paralyzed after a 2019 fall. She credits them with encouraging her to follow her passion.
“We were all just crying on the phone,” Lee said. “It was 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.”
Lee is one of five children in a Hmong American family and believed to be the first Hmong to win a gold medal. The Hmongs are an ethic group from Southeast Asia who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. When that war was lost, they had no land or nation to call home.
Many fled to Thailand as refugees before immigrating to the United States. Here they've tried to build lives in a country they once fought for, only to struggle to find recognition, let alone acceptance.
The largest population is in the Twin Cities. Lee counts scores of relatives, but also the distinction of being an outsider. The gym was a refuge though, a place where nothing mattered but work and results.
She has spoken about the pride she has for her community and her hope that she can spread their story through the Olympics to help gain acceptance and understanding.
Nothing like a gold medal, with Simone Biles herself cheering her on, to do that.
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