“It doesn’t feel like real life,” American gymnast Sunisa Lee told reporters. Overnight the athlete became the fifth American woman straight to win an Olympic gold medal at the all-round Gymnastics competition. You would have already read of the incredible weightlifter who won the Philippines’ first ever gold medal – she was stuck in a foreign country as the globe grappled with the pandemic and was forced to train using bottles of water. For Lee, her road to victory was also marred by exceptional circumstances.
After the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed in 2020, Lee returned to training in June of last year. One week into training she broke her foot and still to this day she experiences pain. She grappled with depression. She lost an aunt and an uncle to COVID-19. Her city saw the full force of George Floyd’s murder as protests flooded her city’s streets. All of this was after her father fell from a ladder in 2019 which left him paralysed from the chest down.
With her family and community watching on from Minnesota, Lee put on an impressive performance to score a 15.300 on the uneven bars, 14.600 on vault, 13.833 on beam and 13.700 on floor. She became the first Hmong American (an ethnic group largely made up of South East Asian and Chinese People who fought alongside the US in the Vietnam war) to win gold at the Olympics.
Lee’s father, John Lee, spoke to Today on the historic win and explained he built his daughter a balance beam when she was young (it still stands today). It was reportedly made from a spare mattress and a piece of ply wood.
“I almost cried and I never cry,” Mr. Lee said. “I’m so happy she won.”
“I said, ‘Okay, we have something special,'” he recalled of his daughter at a young age. “So, I knew she was going to go pretty far, but I didn’t expect the gold. I’m so glad I built that beam for her.”
Lee’s family reaction was filmed as she won gold. I dare you try not to cry.
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 29, 2021
It comes after Team USA was rocked when golden girl Simone Biles was forced to retire from the competition citing struggles with her mental health (what a role model). Lee admitted that she was attending the Olympics to win silver after she trailed behind Biles at every competition.
“I had to switch gears,” Lee said. “We were all coming in to compete for second, and this whole season I’ve been second to [Biles]. There was a lot of pressure. People were counting on me to get second or win the gold medal. But I tried not to focus on that or I would have been too nervous.”
Nonetheless, Lee defied all odds and all set backs and we can’t wait to see where she goes next. Read more inspiring stories from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, here.