TOKYO — Last month, Suni Lee became the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team. That wasn’t enough for the St. Paul, Minn., native.
Lee wanted an Olympic medal. She won a silver in the team event and Thursday, she got a gold one. Lee, 18, won the Olympic all-around title with a stellar performance at Ariake Gymnastics Centre, outlasting a challenge from Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade and Russia’s Angelika Melnikova.
Lee finished with a score of 57.433. Andrade took silver with 57.298, and Melnikova won bronze with 57.199. Lee’s U.S. teammate Jade Carey, who got into the 24-athlete field when defending champion Simone Biles withdrew, finished eighth.
“To be here is crazy,” Lee said. “It doesn’t feel like real life. I didn’t think I would ever be able to win a gold medal. I’m speechless.”
After Biles bowed out because of mental health concerns, Lee became the top American qualifier in the field. Biles’ absence left it wide open, and several women came ready to stake their claim.
Lee stood second to Andrade at the halfway point but jumped into the lead with a solid routine on balance beam. She led Andrade by .101 going into the final rotation, floor exercise.
Lee’s floor routine earned a score of 13.700, and Andrade needed a 13.802 to win. Andrade stepped out of bounds on two of her tumbling passes, incurring automatic deductions to her score, and got a mark of 13.666.
“The waiting game was something I hated so much,” Lee said. “When I saw my score came out on top, it was just like so emotional. I didn’t think I would ever be here. There was one point when I wanted to quit. To even say that I’m the Olympic gold medalist and to be here is just so crazy.”
The gold was the fifth in a row for an American gymnast in the Olympic women’s all-around.
As soon as the Olympic team was named in late June, speculation began about what its nickname would be. The athletes knew it would be revealed through time and circumstances. In the hours after the team final Tuesday, the Americans were calling themselves the Fighting Four.
The name commemorated their resolve in the face of Biles’ shocking withdrawal during the team final. Instead of being fearful or deflated, they believed they could still bring home a medal. Lee said she was in tears when she learned Biles could not continue, but she quickly brushed them away and got to work.
She delivered the performance of her life on uneven bars and contributed her team’s highest scores on bars, beam and floor. Having thrived in one high-pressure situation, she took on another Thursday in the all-around, where Summer Games superstars are made.
“I was starting to put a little bit too much pressure on myself,” Lee said. “Knowing that Simone was gone, I feel like people kind of put that pressure on me, that I had to come back with a medal. I tried not to think about it. (My coaches) told me to just focus on myself and do what I normally do, because that’s when I compete the best.”
Lee started well, scoring a 14.600 on vault — .267 of a point higher than she scored in qualifying. Last spring, when she was limiting her competition and training because of ankle pain, she wasn’t training much on vault. Thursday, she stuck her double twisting Yurchenko and looked ultra-confident doing it.
Andrade stepped out of bounds on her vault landing, but a higher start value helped her score 15.300. That put her in the lead after the first rotation, with Carey second and Lee fourth.
On bars, Lee performed her most difficult routine, with a 6.8 difficulty score. She exhaled deeply, then executed it cleanly. Her score of 15.300 was the best of the night on that event, but Andrade also performed well, scoring a 14.666 that kept her in the lead.
Lee performed the most difficult beam routine of the top contenders and hung on despite a few wobbles. On a wolf turn — in which the gymnast crouches and spins on one foot — she tipped backward but did not fall. Her determination kept her on, and she scored a 13.833, enough to put her into the lead.
Andrade did a much less difficult routine and performed it well, but she scored a 13.566. That put her third behind Lee and Urazova. She submitted an inquiry to the judges and had .100 added to her score, which raised her into second place.
Melnikova went first on floor, and a 13.966 gave her the lead. Lee took it right back with a floor routine that had three difficult tumbling passes and scored 13.700.
Whether Lee would get gold or silver came down to Andrade’s performance. On her first tumbling pass. Andrade stepped out of bounds, an automatic deduction. She did it again on her final pass. Needing a score of 13.802, Andrade got 13.666, and the title belonged to Lee.