TIt was supposed to be the night Simone Biles added another starred page to the history books, becoming the first gymnast to defend a women’s Olympic all-around title for more than 50 years. Instead, a new American talent has emerged from the shadow of greatness.
As Biles watched and screamed from the stands, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee kept her cool in an epic four-way fight for gold. She had already made waves by becoming the first American Hmong to compete for the U.S. team – then again in a nerve-racking performance in Tuesday night’s tag team competition after Biles pulled out citing issues of concern. ‘anxiety. This, however, was a performance brimming with energy, daring and power.
That turned out to be just enough to eclipse the brilliant Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who was flawless in her first major international competition since reconstructive knee surgery, until two late ground errors cost her only gold. of 0.135 point. Russian Angelina Melnikova won bronze.
It also capped a story so remarkable it could have been scripted by Hollywood. It began long before Lee was born, when the CIA recruited the Hmong to prevent North Vietnamese Communists from entering Laos – then pivoted sharply when Laos fell in 1975.
Lee’s parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were among the thousands of Hmong refugees who made the perilous journey to Thailand and then the United States. Most have not found the Promised Land: 60% of American Hmong have low incomes and more than a quarter live in poverty.
Many of them, however, gathered at a community center to watch their golden daughter win an Olympic title. “The community is amazing,” Lee explained afterward. “They were all looking together. Everyone got to see me win a gold medal and I wish they were here. There were actually too many people to fit into my house, so they went to a community center and watched it together.
But Lee’s words were tinged with sadness as she admitted things hadn’t been easy for many of her friends and family. “The Hmong community is the most united person of all time and I feel that many are not reaching their goals,” she added. “But I want people to know that you never know what’s going to happen in the end. So don’t give up on your dreams.
Lee certainly didn’t, even though she had a lot of bad breaks and horrible heartaches. In 2019, for example, her father became paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a ladder, while last year she lost her aunt and uncle to Covid-19.
Lee now says that the immense sadness she felt made her stronger because she had to fight negative thoughts. But his mind was clear when his father spoke to him before the final with a simple message. “He just told me to do what I normally do, to go out and do my best, and in my heart I was already a winner. “
It was her father who inadvertently guided her on the path that led to a gold medal. At the age of six, Lee would still jump on her bed or ask her father to “spot” her while she was doing backflips. Eventually, her mother gave in and took her to a gymnastics club.
Even so, a year ago, she had the idea to quit smoking, after breaking a bone in her foot during the pandemic. “It just wasn’t improving and I felt like I was never going to be able to make it to the Olympics,” she explained. But her injury healed just in time for her to enjoy the biggest sliding door moment of those Tokyo Olympics.
It would have been easy for Biles to stay away from the all-around final. No one would have cared after she spoke so forcefully about her mental health issues. Instead, she took a front row seat in the stands and, for just one night, became the biggest gymnastics fan in the world.
Every routine was lived. Every fall felt. Whenever a gymnast performed a perilous move on the uneven bars, Biles would throw his hands to his face and look nervously through his fingers. It didn’t matter what country they came from. Biles’ response was the same for Russian, Brazilian and American gymnasts. Frequently, hers was also the loudest voice in Ariake Gymnastics Center as she shouted encouragement and clapped loudly after each safe descent.
The gymnasts noticed it. As Lee said afterwards, “It means a lot to me to have Simone here to cheer me on. Just having her in the arena has been so helpful because she is an inspiration to me and to someone I admire. “
Melnikov offered similar sentiments. – Yes, of course I heard it, she said smiling. “I admire his work. And I hope she will be better.
Earlier on Thursday, Biles posted a thank-you message on social media for such feelings. “The outpouring of love and support I received made me realize that I am more than my accomplishments and my gymnastics, which I had never really believed in before,” she said. .
They were encouraging noises. And there’s still a chance Biles will be back for the individual events she qualified for the final, which will take place next week.
But ultimately, tonight was about Lee because, once again, an American star won all-around gold – although not what we all expected at the start of the Olympics.