TOKYO — For years, Sunisa Lee, a teenager from Minnesota who became the Olympic all-around gymnastics champion on Thursday night, wasn’t training just for herself.
Lee, a Hmong American, went to the gym every day for all the first-generation Americans who wanted to achieve success when their parents had come to the United States with nothing. And she trained through grueling practices and painful injuries for her father, John, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019 and now uses a wheelchair.
Lee, 18, came into the Olympics wanting to win a gold medal for her father, who is her biggest fan, and for all the Hmong Americans who she feels are unseen in the United States. But she had publicly stated that her goal was to win silver in the all-around because her teammate Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic medalist, had been considered a lock to win that title.
But after a lifetime of chasing Biles in the all-around because Biles hasn’t lost that marquee event since 2013, Lee took advantage of her shot to do so in Tokyo. Biles, considered the best gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team event and the all-around because of mental stress, leaving Lee in position to win it all.
“It didn’t even think I’d ever get here,” Lee said. “It doesn’t even feel like I’m in real life.”
On Thursday, Lee hit routine after routine, often as if she were at practice, not at the most important competition of her life. She even nailed the floor exercise in her last rotation of the night, with new choreography and elements that had been changed by her coach, Jess Graba, that morning. They had decided to take out her fourth tumbling pass because her left ankle, which she fractured last year, hasn’t completely healed, leading to poor landings — and big deductions — for that final pass.
The change worked. Lee had her best floor exercise score of these Olympics.
Rebeca Andrade of Brazil won silver and Angelina Melnikova of Russia won the bronze.
Graba, Lee’s coach since she was in elementary school, knew that she could hit her new routine — and the other routines, too. From the start, he believed she was a special athlete, one that had “a lot of spunk” and was fearless. He and his wife, Lee’s other coach, Alison Lim, worked closely together to usher Lee to the top of the sport, but also keep the sport fun.
Winning, of course, was also important. Graba said he and Lee often discussed winning the Olympic gold medal, even in the era of Biles, because he knew she had the potential to do it under the right circumstances. Even if Biles had been in the competition in Tokyo, he said, he thought Lee could come close to beating her.
“Too much of the conversation has been about one person,” Graba said, adding that he was thrilled that the world has had a chance to see Lee at her best and appreciate her, as he and his wife have done for more than a decade. “I thought she was this good all the time. I feel best that everybody else got to see it. She finally got to show it.”
Lee’s gold in the all-around, which determines the best overall gymnast, came just two days after she rallied her teammates to win silver in the team final. Biles had pulled out of the team event after competing on the vault, the first of four events. On the next event, the uneven bars, Lee decided to perform her hardest bars routine — the most difficult in the world — instead of the easier one she had planned because she knew the team would need every tenth of a point to win a medal. Her 15.4 points on bars was the highest score of the night.
Later, Lee competed on the floor exercise after not practicing her floor routine for two days because her coach wanted to spare her ankle. She wasn’t initially selected to perform the floor exercise at the team final because each country chooses only three of its four gymnasts to compete on each apparatus. With Biles out, though, Lee had little choice.
During the all-around, Lee brought the same resolve to make it to the podium. And in the end, she made it to the top of it.
Before the medal ceremony, she FaceTimed her family, which had been watching the competition from a large hall near her home in St. Paul. A huge contingent of family and friends, many from the Hmong American community, had joined them. She talked to her father first, saying, “I did it!”
They both cried.
Jade Carey hits an amazingly difficult floor routine, featuring a double-twisting double layout, a double-twisting double tuck, a full-twisting double layout and a full-twisting double tuck. She won’t win a medal today, but she still has the vault and floor finals next week.
Rebeca Andrade is the first woman ever to win an all-around medal of any color for a country that did not qualify a full team to the Olympic Games.
What’s next for Lee? It’s sure to be a whirlwind, but as of now she has plans in the future to compete for the gymnastics team at Auburn University in Alabama. The brother of Jess Graba, her coach, heads the team there.
Suni Lee is the fifth American in a row to win the women’s Olympic all-around title, following Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Simone Biles in 2016. No other country has a streak like that in the women’s all-around. The closest any country has come is the Soviet Union, whose gymnasts won three consecutive all-around gold medals in 1952, 1956 and 1960.
Lee is in a very exclusive group now: Only 16 women have an Olympic all-around title to their name.
Rebeca Andrade wins the silver medal — the first medal ever for Brazil in women’s gymnastics — and Angelina Melnikova wins the bronze.
SUNISA LEE IS THE OLYMPIC ALL-AROUND CHAMPION.
Andrade needs a 13.802 on floor to win the gold.
Lee moves into first place with a 13.7, meaning she is guaranteed at least a silver medal! Andrade is up now.
Urazova had some leg form issues in her first tumbling pass, a piked full-in, and a couple steps on the landing. The rest of her routine was cleaner, and she finished with a stuck landing on a double twist.
Suni Lee hits her floor routine, starting with an extremely difficult double-twisting double back.
Angelina Melnikova looking absolutely terrified as she waits for her score. It’s a 13.966, moving her into first place with Suni Lee and Rebeca Andrade still to come. She seems happy enough with that score.
It’s worth noting that Urazova’s Russian teammate Viktoria Listunova didn’t move on to the all-around because of the two-per country rule. Listunova certainly would have been in contention for a medal, possibly gold, here.
Urazova is the youngest of the women in contention for the gold. At just 16, she is new to the international scene on the senior level and let’s just say she’s doing a pretty good job of adjusting.
Nina Derwael hits her floor routine, but it’s much less difficult than what we’ll see from the other top contenders. Only two tumbling passes compared with four for many others.
This is going to be really close. If the four leaders each scored exactly the same on floor exercise as they did in the qualifying round, the final rankings would be Andrade, Melnikova, Urazova, with Lee shut out of the medals in fourth. But the gap between first and fourth would be only about four tenths.
just a note to remind you that Olympic gymnasts fall sometimes and YOOOUCH. A handful have done what looks like a belly flop while warming up on the uneven bars and that BOOM is cringeworthy. Then they get up and do it again and again.
Before performing her balance beam routine, you could tell that Sunisa Lee was nervous. She was squatting and staring at the floor. And then pacing. And then took deep breath after deep breath, her hand on her belly to calm herself. Her jitters remained throughout her routine, too.
She wobbled several times and caught herself from falling back after completing her wolf turn, which is done with one leg entirely bent so her body is close to the beam and the other leg is straight. But she didn’t fall, and that was key. Her landing was solid, with no steps. She received a 13.833, enough to put her into the lead. Going into the final apparatus, the floor exercise, the top three gymnasts: Lee, Russia’s Vladislava Urazova (now second) and Andrade (third) are separated by just two-tenths of a point. Any one of them could win gold.
What an exciting competition. The difficulty score, a 6.1, in Sunisa Lee’s beam routine was key. Rebeca Andrade’s routine had a 5.6.
Rebeca Andrade hit her beam routine with only a step backward on her double pike dismount, but a score of 13.566 moves her from first place into third. Going into the final rotation, Suni Lee is in first with 43.733, Vladislava Urazova is in second with 43.566, and Andrade is in third with 43.532.
Suni Lee scored 13.833, a little under four tenths lower than in the qualifying round. Part of that was the wobble on the wolf turn, but I think she also had a slightly lower difficulty score than planned — she usually does a double wolf turn immediately after the triple wolf turn, and she didn’t today.
Suni Lee has an incredible save on beam. She was off balance, leaning backward, on her triple wolf turn but managed to stay on, pressing her foot against the side of the beam. The core strength it takes to do that…
Over on the sidelines, one of the gymnasts currently on vault is doing handstands, lifting one hand at a time and rotating on the other arm as her coach holds her up. A glimpse of warmups for uneven bars!
Melnikova, who also fell off beam in the team final, wobbles on her switch leap mount but hits the rest of her routine, finishing with a nearly stuck double pike dismount.
Urazova scores 14.2 on beam, two-tenths higher than in qualifications. Angelina Melnikova is up now.
Vladislava Urazova, who fell off beam in the team final, hits her routine today, ending with a 2.5-twisting dismount.
Ed Sheeran update: Not only do we have to hear “Shape of You” between every rotation, but now the Chinese gymnast Lu Yufei is performing to the song — well, the elevator music version — during her floor exercise. Send help.
Here in the stands, I’m seeing Sunisa Lee watch the other gymnasts perform on the balance beam, and it’s making me nervous. She’s squatting down with her head down, staring at the floor. Then pacing. Then going through her beam moves. I’m so close that I can see her take deep breath after deep breath while she’s holding one hand on her belly. The next two routines are the biggest ones of her life.
Nina Derwael wobbled on her back handspring beam mount, and it looks like she may have also missed an intended connection between two skills. She scores 13.366, four-tenths lower than in the qualifying round.
Carey is likely now out of the hunt for a medal here, but can still medal next week in the vault and floor exercise finals.
Mai Murakami of Japan does a great double-twisting Yurchenko on vault. She was only the 18th-ranked qualifier to the all-around finals after some uncharacteristic mistakes in the qualifying round, but could very well do better today.
Sunisa Lee’s uneven bars routine is the hardest in the world, with her flying over and between the bars so gracefully that it looks like she’s dancing in midair. She has been dreaming of winning the Olympic medal in this event during apparatus finals next week, and she is certainly one of the favorites to do it.
Her bars routine just now was the best of her group, even better than Nina Derwael’s. Derwael is Lee’s biggest competition on bars and it showed in their scores. Lee had 15.3 points, while Derwael had 15.266. That strong score launched Lee into second place overall, just 0.66 points behind Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. With two more events to go, we’re halfway done, and the rest of the night is going to be a nail-biter.
We took a look at Lee’s moves going into the Olympics.
That Andrade is not just in contention for but a favorite for a medal in the all-around is remarkable. She has spent most of the quad — the gymnastics term for the four-year cycle between Olympics — hampered by injuries, and she qualified for these Games at the last possible moment.
Jade Carey falls on her back handspring, layout stepout, layout stepout on beam.
In the gymnastics world, the biggest fans have a joke when they have questions about the scores they’re seeing: Is Carol judging? Carol is the Karen of gymnastics scoring, making decisions that onlookers don’t necessary agree with. It’s a popular term among those who follow N.C.A.A. gymnastics, where routines with obvious errors score very high, even perfect 10s. To be fair, the scores here haven’t been particularly Carol-ish.
Halfway through the competition, Rebeca Andrade remains in first place with a total of 29.966, and Suni Lee has jumped up to second place with 29.9. Angelina Melnikova is in third with 29.533.
Sunisa Lee flew up and around the uneven bars as she connected some of the hardest maneuvers done on the apparatus. She scored a 15.3, just a tenth below her mark in the team final. No one does a bars routine as complex as Lee’s.
Suni Lee just put in an impressive performance on bars — not because it was perfect, but because she managed to power through some slight errors that could very easily have derailed the routine.
Melnikova got a bit of a gift from the judges, in my opinion. She’s beautiful on bars, but I believe she has scored lower for better outings.
Angelina Melnikova of Russia does the same routine as her teammate Urazova and scores a few hundredths higher, 14.9.
Vladislava Urazova scores 14.866 on uneven bars, exactly the same as she did in qualifications. It’s a very good score.