How Suni Lee Stepped Into the Spotlight and Stole America's Heart

The 18-year-old athlete is making history at the Tokyo Games as the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast, scooping up well-deserved medals along the way.

Photo: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

For Sunisa (Suni) Lee, winning the Olympic gold medal in Thursday's individual all-around gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Games was, as she wrote on Instagram, "so surreal." The 18-year-old Minnesota native, who is also the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast, edged out Brazil's Rebeca Andrade and Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee, to take first place.

"This is a crazy experience," Lee told the TODAY Show's Hoda Kotb on Thursday. "Like it doesn't even feel like real life. I'm going to be like, 'Oh my gosh am I an Olympic gold medalist?! No!"

Lee earned topped marks with her gravity-defying routine on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor. She is now the fifth consecutive Team USA gymnast to win the individual all-around event, following in the footsteps of her teammate, 2016 all-around champ Simone Biles. Biles, who withdrew from Thursday's competition and Tuesday's team all-around final to focus on her mental health, was among the first to congratulate Lee on Thursday's victory. Lee also received a special message from her favorite fan back home: her father John Lee.

"I'm going to tell her I'm so proud of her," said John Lee on TODAY before getting a chance to speak with his daughter after Thursday's win. "I want to tell her team that no matter what, you all support her, and I want to tell Simone that she truly is the G.O.A.T. because she let my baby girl bring the gold medal." (

In a video shared Thursday on Twitter, Sunisa's family and friends in Minnesota are seen celebrating the moment she officially snagged the top spot. For Sunisa, however, the gold-medal win is bittersweet as she couldn't celebrate with the man "who sacrificed everything to put [her] in gymnastics," she told TODAY of her dad.

"This has been our dream forever," said Sunisa of the father-daughter duo. "I wish he was here. He always told me if I win the gold medal he would come out on the ground and do a backflip. It's sad that he can't be here, but this is our dream, and this [is] our medal."

Sunisa's mother, Yeev Thoj, met John Lee when Sunisa was just 2 years old.And while Yeev and John Lee never wed, Sunisa took his last name. Long before the Olympics were ever in sight, John Lee helped to make Sunisa's aspirations a reality. He not only taught Sunisa, who is one of six kids (three of whom John Lee shares with Yeev) how to do flips on the bed, according to ELLE, but also constructed a 4-foot-long makeshift balance beam from a spare mattress for Sunisa's practice, as the family was unable to afford a real one at the time.

Sunisa eventually flipped her way to the U.S. Junior National Team in 2016 at the age of 14. Three years later, however, Sunisa's family endured a personal setback when John Lee fell off of a ladder while helping a friend cut a tree branchand became paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the fall. The accident took place shortly before the U.S. National Championships in 2019.

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 6

"She almost didn't go because I was in surgery," John Lee previously told CBS. "She and her coach came over, and I woke up and said, 'You worked so hard for it, just go.'" Sunisa came in second in the all-around competition at the National Championships, finishing just behind Biles.

Unfortunately for Sunisa, she had to wait another year to show off her talents at the Tokyo Games, which were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sunisa was also sidelined in 2020 due to a foot injury. She then suffered a coronavirus scare of her own while also coping with the loss of her aunt and uncle, who both died from COVID-19 within 13 days of each other, according to The New York Times. (See also: Olympic Gymnast Suni Lee Shared the Inspiring Way She Copes With Career Setbacks)

What's more, the past year was fraught with anti-Asian hate crimes due to systemic racism that grew in large part to the spread of misinformation about the origins of COVID-19. "People hate on us for no reason," said Sunia, whose family is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. "It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say. I don't know how to explain that..." she shared in an interview with ELLE. (

Suni-Lee-Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 6

Despite the hardships Sunisa's endured while working toward her Olympic goals, she appears to be grateful for Thursday's moment in time. "I was telling myself nothing more, nothing less, just do the same thing that I always do, telling myself to breathe because my heart was beating so fast," said Sunisa on TODAY Thursday. "I was so nervous; I just tell myself to go out there and give it my all because at this point there is no turning back."

The gold is just the latest medal Sunisa has added to her collection. Earlier this week, she and teammates Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, and Biles scooped up the silver in the team final. "The silver medal yesterday is something we're so proud of and now this [gold]one, I'm just like super proud," she said.

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