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Team USA’s gold-medal gymnastics champion Sunisa “Suni” Lee is an 18-year-old Minnesota native who secured the top prize in the all-around contest during her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Lee earned a spot in the all-around contest after placing third in the qualifying event but she wasn’t expected to take home the gold while competing beside the GOAT, Simone Biles.
However, Biles, 24, bowed out of the all-around contest after suddenly dropping out of the team finals the day before, due to struggles with her mental health — setting off a free-for-all where the gold was suddenly in reach for Lee and her competition.
In Biles’ absence, Lee rose to the challenge and secured Team USA’s gold medal-winning streak in the all-around competition, which the women’s gymnastics team has dominated every year since the 2004 Athens Olympics when Carly Patterson snagged the top spot.
Here’s everything you need to know about Team USA’s newest golden girl.
Lee’s parents, John and Yeev, both hail from Laos but are also Hmong, an ethnic group largely found in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and parts of China who fought beside the US in the Vietnam War, Elle reported.
Lee has long dreamed of being the first Hmong Olympian, and that wish finally came true for her.
“It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the US ever,” her dad previously told Elle for a profile story on the star gymnast.
“It will go down in history.”
The quest to represent her culture was even more important for Lee as she and her community contended with a national surge in anti-Asian violence stirred up amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People hate on us for no reason,” Lee told Elle of the anti-Asian sentiment.
“It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say.”
Lee grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where there is a large Hmong community that settled there as refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong natives lost their land and fled to Thailand before landing in the US.
Lee described the Hmong community as “really close” and said their “support” has been “amazing.”
Lee got her start at the Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, Minnesota, when she was just 6 years old under the direction of coach Punnarith Koy.
The coach enjoyed a front-row seat watching the precocious gymnast’s natural dynamism and balance, which propelled her from a boisterous child into an American champion.
Koy previously told The Post he watched Lee execute a front aerial to back handspring stepout on the high beam at 9 years old — a move that helped Gabby Douglas win gold in London in 2012.
“She had that really quick-twitch good power,” recalled Koy, who still coaches at the gym.
“That just came naturally. And she has this fearlessness about her.”
Lee soon caught the attention of Jess Graba, a coach at Midwest Gymnastics, who has been training her ever since.
“It was super raw and she was just a little kid, but she had some talent,” Graba told Elle, recalling when they met.
“Her flips were kind of crazy — she had been practicing in her yard — and she clearly had some ability to go upside down without fear.”
When Lee was 14, she joined the US junior national team in 2016 and traveled around the world for competitions.
By 2018, she’d won the gold medal at the National Championships on the uneven bars — her best event — and a year later, came within four-tenths of a point of beating Biles at the US World Championships selection camp.
While most of the world suffered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastation was extra personal for Lee.
The gold medalist lost both her aunt and uncle to the virus less than two weeks apart.
Lee was very close to her relatives, who used to babysit her as a kid and played an active role in her gymnastics career.
Lee’s uncle was a Hmong shaman who helped her heal an injured foot using herbal medicines and hot ginger, Elle reported.
Just before her uncle died from the virus, she was only able to say goodbye over Zoom.
But while the Olympian was mourning the death of her relatives, she was also helping to take care of her father, John Lee, who was left paralyzed after an accident.
Two days before the 2019 National Championships, her dad fell from a ladder while trimming a tree, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
At first, her father’s accident looked like it’d put her Olympic dreams on hold because the event is an unofficial pre-qualifier for the Games and Graba didn’t think it was safe for Lee to compete while distracted.
But Lee’s dad encouraged her to go to the competition, and just before she stepped onto the mat, they talked over FaceTime, where the proud pop told her to keep her focus and remember to have fun.
“She can stay focused when she puts her mind to it,” he told Elle.
She went on to win silver in the all-around and nail one of the toughest bar routines in the world, paving the way for her entrance to the Olympics.
When gymnastics superstar Biles dropped out of the team finals and the all-around contest, Lee became the de-facto leader and helped Team USA secure the silver medal behind Russia, who scored the gold.
Following her first-place win in the all-around, Lee will soon be back on the mat to compete in the individual event finals, where she’s expected to crush the uneven bars and the routine she is most known for.
Once she’s done with her Olympic competitions, Lee has signed on to attend and compete for Auburn University in Alabama.