Sunisa Lee, at 18 the youngest member of the U.S. women’s Olympics gymnastics team at the Tokyo Games, has won the gold medal in the individual all-around competition on Thursday.
Lee was thrust into the spotlight when teammate Simone Biles suddenly withdrew from the overall team finals Tuesday after failing to execute her planned maneuver in the vault and stumbled on her landing. Despite no pre-event training, Lee took Biles’ place in the floor routine and gave a sterling performance that helped the Americans win the silver medal.
Besides being the youngest member of the 2020 team, Lee is also the first person of Hmong descent to make the U.S. Olympics team. The native of St. Paul, in the U.S. state of Minnesota, is a member of the large ethnic Hmong community that settled in the midwestern city and other parts of the U.S. in the late 1970s as refugees after secretly fighting alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, but later abandoned after the war ended.
Yeev Thoj, Sunisa Lee’s mother, told VOA’s Lao Service she and her husband, John Lee, first enrolled their daughter in gymnastics to keep her and her five siblings active. In time, she said they noticed Sunisa was “kind of a little naturally gifted” in the sport.
“When she goes to gymnastics, she seems to enjoy and like it and was able to progress like gymnastic skill more and more each year, and that's kind of who she is,” she said.
Lee’s Olympic journey has been filled with adversity in recent years, the most notable instance of which occurred in 2019, when her father was left paralyzed from the chest down after he fell off a ladder just days before she was due to compete at the U.S. National Championships. She completed as planned at her father’s urging, and finished second behind Biles in the all-around competition.
She was also unable to train last year after her gym closed at the height of the pandemic, which claimed the lives of her aunt and uncle. She then suffered a broken foot after her gym reopened and she resumed training.
VOA's Lao Service contributed to this report.