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Tokyo Olympic Spotlight: Sunisa Lee

The Tokyo Olympics is winding to a close, and SportsEngine has shined the spotlight on five of the reigning and emerging stars for Team USA. You'll learn about their journey, including in the formative years that helped propel that athlete to become one of the nation's–and world's–best.

Check out the fourth installment, with six insights on Suni Lee, the youngest member of Team USA's gymnastics team and the emergent star after winning the All-Around Olympic title.


Sunisa Lee's parents are from Laos

Hmong people are an ethnic group of between 6 and 12 million who are primarily from a country called Laos but were mostly displaced following the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Many Hmong settled in the United States, with the Twin Cities among the main communities. Sunisa was named after a popular Thai soap opera actress, and she grew up in St. Paul. She started in gymnastics at the age of 6, and she was inspired by watching YouTube videos of U.S. Olympians, including Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. She started at the Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, near St. Paul, and she immediately shined. "Once I started, I just couldn’t stop," she told the New York Times. “It looked so fun."

Suni practiced relentlessly

inspiring her father John to build her a four-foot long balance beam from a spare mattress. John, quite acrobatic himself, also taught Suni how two do flips. Coach Jess Graba noticed some key qualities in Suni early on. "It was super raw and she was just a little kid, but she had some talent," coach Jess Graba told Elle. "Her flips were kind of crazy — she had been practicing in her yard — and she clearly had some ability to go upside down without fear." Suni consistently trained, and she developed a strong relationship with her coach and his wife, Alison.

Suni's father has been with her every step of the way

Her father attended many of Suni's meets, including ones in other countries, and he would give her pep talks beforehand. "Sometimes I'd be hard on her, and she'd get mad. When Suni's mad, she focuses a little better," John told ESPN, making clear that was the approach earlier in her athletic journey. "Now she's used to me telling her to go out there and have fun." Then, just two days before Suni was set to leave for the 2019 National Championships, John fell from a ladder while trimming a tree and suffered several injuries, including to his spinal cord that paralyzed him from the chest down. Suni's coach was planning to have Suni not compete, but Johninsisted Suni should compete in Kansas City. She excelled, finishing second only to Simone Biles. Suni also won the gold medal in the uneven bars, her strongest event. In fact, her routine is the hardest in the world.

The Olympic Trials were a breakout moment for Suni

In June, Suni finished behind Biles at the U.S. Olympic Trials, even topping her on Day 2 of the event. That strong showing catapulted her to become the first Hmong-American to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games. "A lot of people don't understand Hmong people or that we went through a really rough life to get here to the United States," John recently told ESPN. "Many groups of Asians get lumped together. Did you see the movie with Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino? It was based on the Hmong people, and even still no one knows. Maybe because of Sunisa, people might know us."

Suni was able to pick up the baton after Simone needed to step out of several events mental health reasons

At the Olympics, Suni shined after Biles stepped away during the team competition, helping the U.S. win the silver medal. Then Suni won the all-around individual gold medal. She made a mistake in uneven bar individual final, but the difficulty of her routine was so high that she still earned a bronze medal. "I’m going to tell her I’m so proud of her," John told Today. "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 GOAT because she let my baby girl bring the gold medal."

July 30th is Sunisa Lee Day

Melvin Carter, the major of St. Paul, declared Friday, July 30th, Sunisa Lee Day. "Whereas, we join members of our Hmong-American community, along with all those in St. Paul, throughout the state of Minnesota, across our nation, and around the world in celebrating Sunisa Lee, and in thanking her for inspiring all of us," the mayor's declaration said. Suni has taken all the success humbly, and she reinforced that her post-Olympic plans are unchanged; she'll be heading to Auburn University, where she verbally committed when she was just 14 years old. Her coach there will be Jeff Graba, her childhood coach's twin brother. "I think I just wanted to have a real college experience and to be able to have fun," Suni said. “Not saying I don’t have fun now but being an elite gymnast it’s so limited because you’re always in the gym, and that’s all I focus on. I’m already not, like, a normal teenager; I don’t go to football games and all that stuff. But when I get to college, it feels like it’s going to be so much more fun, I guess, and like, free.”

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Gymnastics