Teen athlete has dealt with trauma, death and injury this year but still won gold at the Tokyo Olympics
Sunisa Lee has just won gold at Tokyo 2020, in individual gymnastics all-around.
The 18-year-old athlete is the first-ever Hmong American Olympian.
What is Sunisa’s back story?
Named Sunisa Phabsomphou at birth, before adopting her father’s name Lee, she grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, fled Laos to the US as refugees of the Vietnam War. She has five brothers and sisters, Jonah, Lucky and Noah and Shyenne and Evionn, who is also a gymnast. Her close friends and family call her “Suni”.
How did she get into gymnastics?
She started gymnastics because she liked “to do flips”. Her father John is one of her biggest supporters – he’s encouraged her passion for gymnastics. He built a balance beam in the garden when she was seven years old, as the family couldn’t afford to buy one, it’s still in her parent’s garden today.
Tragedy struck just before Suni’s first US National Championships in 2019, her father was paralysed from the waist down after falling off a ladder while he was helping a neighbour with their tree.
After FaceTiming with her father from his hospital bed, Suni went through with the competition and placed second in the all-around, behind Simone Biles.
In 2020, Suni suffered further setbacks and trauma – due to coronavirus, her gym was closed for weeks. When it did reopen, she broke her foot in the first week of training.
Sadly, her aunt and uncle then passed away as a result of coronavirus.
“It was very difficult for myself and my family because they were my closest [relatives],” Lee told Olympics.com. “They would babysit me when I was younger and if I ever had an injury, they would do everything they could to try and help me feel better.”
Her dad’s words of support have made all the difference in her run-up to Olympic glory, they have become well-known in the gymnast circuit, he is able to calm her nerves pre-event.
“I look at Sunisa and think about what she has had to go through to get to where she’s at, and she inspires me,” John told ESPN.
How did Suni win gold at the Olympics?
Lee competed in the all-round event, winning gold despite the team’s huge shakeup after Simone Biles withdrew from the competition, citing mental health issues.
“Thank you for being a role model and someone I look up to every single day,” wrote Lee on Instagram after Ms Biles’ announcement. “You not only inspire me as a gymnast but as a person as well. your fearlessness and ability to do the impossible does not go unnoticed, we love you!!”
Suni Lee’s win marks the country’s fifth in a row for all-round, after Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Simone Biles in 2016.
Lee narrowly beat Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, with a score of 57.433 to Andrade’s 57.298
What does Suni do outside gymnastics?
Her favourite school subject is science, she like fishing and camping – she and her family do mega annual camping trips, the last one had 300 people in attendance. Her favourite book is Harry Potter. She listens to pop, loves pasta and enjoys a rom-com.
What’s next for Suni Lee?
The athlete is set to attend Auburn University on an athletic scholarship, although she is still undecided as to what she will be studying. “Thank you to my coaches and family for helping me make this decision!! Go tigers” posted Suni on Instagram.