Sunisa Lee Gives Her Dad Her Gold Medal During An Emotional Family Reunion

·5 min read

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All eyes are on Sunisa "Suni" Lee at the Tokyo Olympics after she stepped up in the absence of fellow Team USA gymnast Simone Biles to win the gold medal in the all-around. The first-ever Hmong American Olympic gymnast is proving that she is a force to be reckoned with, from the floor to the uneven bars.

But the past few years haven't been easy for 18-year-old Suni. She lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19, her father was paralyzed from the chest down, and she broke her foot while practicing for the Tokyo Games, per Elle.

Now, Suni has left Japan with a record-breaking Olympic performance—and her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, have been in her corner every step of the way.

After a long plane ride home, Suni celebrated her wins in a live reunion and makeshift medal ceremony with her family on the Today Show. She took her medals and gifted them to her parents and her brother in an emotional moment, and the pictures are beyond sweet.

Here's what you need to know about Suni's supportive fam:

Suni is one of six kids.

The Lee household has six kids total. John already had two kids, Jonah and Shyenne, when he met Yeev and 2-year-old Suni. Then, John and Yeev had Evionn, Lucky, and Noah together.

Yeev says it was completely Suni's decision to change her last name to Lee, since she and John were never legally married. "She wanted his last name," Yeev told ESPN.

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Suni's parents are both from Laos.

John and Yeev were young when their families fled Laos during the Vietnam War and arrived in the United States as refugees, according to NPR. They settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a large community of other Hmong Americans who came to the U.S. with similar stories. Currently, Yeev is a healthcare worker, per Newsweek.

The entire community couldn't be prouder of Suni's success. Hmong activist Tou Ger Xiong told the Pioneer Press that "she’s the realization of the dream our ancestors had."

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Two years ago, an accident left John paralyzed.

In 2019, John was left paralyzed from the chest down after he fell off a ladder while helping a neighbor trim a tree, two days before Suni was supposed to compete at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships, per NBC News. Suni wanted to skip the competition, but her dad insisted she compete.

He FaceTimed Suni from his bed in the ICU and told her to just do her best, since she'd always be number one in his eyes. At the competition Suni won gold on the uneven bars and finished second in the all-around, behind only Simone Biles, per ESPN.

John is still recovering and currently uses a wheelchair, but he's hoping he'll be back on his feet soon. "My hands are getting stronger. My balance is not so great, but I’m learning how to cope with that," he told NBC News.

"Hopefully in the future, if I have upper-body strength, with the use of an exoskeleton, I can do a little walking," John told ESPN. "That's my goal."

John helped Suni start her gymnastics training at home when she was little.

If it seems like gymnastics is in Suni's DNA, it's because her dad pushed her to start early. John has been Suni's biggest supporter since day one.

When she was seven, John transformed an old, lumpy mattress into a homemade balance beam in their backyard, per Elle. He also taught Suni how to do flips on a bed.

"Before my injury, I was active and athletic and I fixed everything around the house," John said. "I can't do any of that now, and it's hard. But when I get so angry at myself, I look at Sunisa and think about what she has had to go through to get to where she's at, and she inspires me," he told ESPN.

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"[He tells me] to go out there and do my best and to just do what I do," Suni told People.

Although her parents couldn't be in Tokyo, they cheered her on from home.

Suni's parents were not be allowed to travel to the Games, but they supported her from home, just like they've always done.

"When Suni started competing as an elite, I traveled with her almost everywhere. I always talked to her before the competition, and sometimes I'd be hard on her and she'd get mad. When Suni's mad, she focuses a little better," John said, per ESPN. "Now she's used to me telling her to go out there and have fun."

"It's really hard because it's been all of our dreams and for them to not even be able to go to the Olympics and watch is something that is so heartbreaking. But I think they're going to have a little watch party," Suni told People.

Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images

"It's pretty amazing that she actually made it this far," her mom said, per Today. "I'm just super proud that she actually made it."

After the Games, Suni is headed off to college in the fall.

Once the Tokyo Games are over, Suni will leave home to attend Auburn University in Alabama on a full-ride scholarship.

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"It's real now. After Tokyo, she's done and she'll go off to college, and I won't be part of it anymore. Her life will change. It's a big moment for all of us," John told ESPN.

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