Golden opportunity: Lee suddenly in Olympics’ brightest spotlight

·4 min read

TOKYO — With Simone Biles out of the women's gymnastics all-around competition, one of the biggest prizes of the Tokyo Olympics is up for grabs Thursday. St. Paul's Suni Lee could be the one to take it, a feat that would rank among the greatest achievements for any Minnesotan at the Olympic Games.

Lee posted the third-highest all-around score during Sunday's qualifying round, behind Biles and Brazil's Rebeca Andrade. Biles was considered a lock to defend the all-around title she won at the 2016 Rio Games, but she withdrew from the competition Wednesday after bowing out of the women's team finals Tuesday. Biles cited mental health reasons and will decide later whether she will compete in next week's individual event finals.

Just as the sun starts to rise in Minnesota, Lee, 18, will be performing on vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise (5:50 a.m., streamed on Peacock app and NBCOlympics.com). The all-around comes two days after she helped her team pull together and win a silver medal after Biles withdrew from the team competition following the first event.

Jade Carey also will represent the U.S. in the all-around final, taking Biles' place in the two-gymnast lineup.

Tuesday night, Lee drew praise from Biles for setting aside the shock and stepping up under extreme stress during the team finals. Though Lee wasn't scheduled to compete on floor exercise, she had to take Biles' place in the event, even though Lee hadn't warmed up for it before the meet.

"I went out on that floor, and I just chucked every single thing,'' Lee said. "When I had to go out there and do it, I just needed to do what I do.''

At earlier meets this year, Lee included only three tumbling passes on her floor routine — rather than four — because of a sore left ankle. Performing her full four-pass routine under intense pressure in the team finals, she scored a 13.666, .233 higher than her mark in Sunday's qualifying.

"It just shows you how amazing and well-trained she is, and how brave and smart she is,'' Biles said.

Lee had an all-around score of 57.166 in the qualifying round, behind Biles (57.731) and Andrade (57.399). Her score on bars, her best event, was the second-highest of the competition, and her beam score ranked third. Lee also improved her bars score in the final, earning a 15.400 for a routine that is among the most difficult in the world. She'll compete in the individual finals for uneven bars and balance beam next week.

Follow the all-around scores in real time

Though she is best known for bars, Lee is an excellent all-around gymnast. She finished ahead of Biles on the second day of competition at last month's Olympic trials, the first time Biles had been outscored in a single day of all-around competition since 2013.

The first Hmong American to make a U.S. Olympic team, Lee has ranked just behind Biles in a number of major meets in the past two years. She was second to Biles at the U.S. championships last month, then claimed the same place at the Olympic trials. In between, she graduated from South St. Paul High School.

At her first world championships in 2019, Lee made the all-around finals with Biles and finished eighth. She reached the podium in every other event, winning gold in the team competition, silver on floor exercise and bronze on bars. She's been the all-around silver medalist at the past two U.S. championships.

Lee didn't compete in the all-around at her first two meets this year because of lingering pain in her left ankle, caused by Achilles' tendinitis that developed after she broke her foot last summer. She has gotten progressively stronger since then.

Before the Olympic trials, Lee was proud of herself just for getting that far. She has endured injuries, the deaths of an aunt and uncle and COVID-related training interruptions over the past 17 months.

In 2019, the day before she left for the U.S. championships, her father, Houa John Lee, was seriously injured when he fell from a tree he was trimming. Lee proved her toughness at that meet, competing shortly after her father had surgery.

Should Lee win Olympic all-around gold, she would join a list of Minnesota-born gold medalists in individual events that includes Lindsey Vonn (women's downhill skiing, 2010 Winter Olympics), Jessie Diggins (women's cross-country skiing team sprint, 2018 Winter Games) and Tom Malchow (swimming, men's 200-meter butterfly, 2000 Summer Games).

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Women's gymnastics on TV

All-around final: Thursday morning at 5:50 a.m., livestreamed on Peacock app and NBCOlympics.com. The replay will be on NBC Ch. 11 in prime time.

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