TOKYO – Suni Lee’s dream of winning an Olympic gold medal is one she has long shared with her father. In the version they envisioned all those years ago, John Lee would join his daughter on the floor and do a backflip in celebration.
That last part wasn’t possible Thursday night. No families are allowed at the Tokyo Olympics because of the COVID-19 pandemic and, even if they were, John Lee is now using a wheelchair after he was partially paralyzed two years ago when he fell from a ladder while cutting down a tree.
Instead, he was watching from home in Minnesota as, half a world away, Suni Lee stared pensively at a scoreboard, waiting to see if Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade would pass her. When Andrade’s score posted and Lee realized she had won, tears filled her eyes, and her family’s watch party erupted in celebration.
She was the Olympic champion, the fifth consecutive U.S. woman to win gymnastics’ biggest prize.
“This is such a surreal moment,” Lee said. “It doesn’t even feel like real life.”
Most had expected this gold would go to Simone Biles, the five-time world champion who has not lost an all-around competition since 2013. Even Lee came to Tokyo assuming she would be competing for a silver medal at best.
But when Biles withdrew from the all-around, still struggling with the mental health issues that forced her out of the team competition after one event, the expectations shifted. Lee had finished second to Biles at both the U.S. championships and the Olympic trials, so surely she would be a contender for gold now.
Such thoughts were unsettling, Lee acknowledged. When she called her father Thursday morning for a pep talk, he told her not to worry about that.
“He told me to do what I normally do: go out and do my best,” she said. “Not to focus on scores because, in their hearts, I was already a winner.”
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The talk settled her, and she took the floor with an air of confidence. Trailing Andrade after the first event, vault, Lee showed on uneven bars that Biles is not the only American with gold medal potential. She is one of the best in the world on the event, with both a crazy-difficult and a slightly-less-crazy-difficult routine.
She went for the crazy-difficult one, and it was flawless. Biles and the rest of the U.S. team could be heard yelling, “C’mon! C’mon!” as she flitted between the bars like a hummingbird. When she dismounted, her landing so solid her legs didn’t even wiggle, the Americans screamed.
Lee’s score of 15.3, which matched Andrade’s vault for the highest of the night, pulled her within 0.066 of the Brazilian. Lee’s beam routine wasn’t her best – she rocked so far backward on a turn it’s a wonder she didn’t fall off – but it was better than Andrade’s, and she was in the lead as they went to the final rotation.
Lee is the reigning world silver medalist on floor exercise, but a foot injury had forced her to water down her routine for both the nationals and the Olympic trials. She inserted a fourth tumbling pass in Tokyo, believing she needed the extra difficulty, but it came at the expense of her execution mark.
“I knew that wasn’t the best beam routine, so I knew I had to do a really good floor routine,” she said. “I took out the last pass, so I knew it would probably be a better score.”
It was certainly cleaner. But Andrade has more difficulty, and Lee wasn’t sure if what she’d done would be enough.
“The waiting game was something that I hated so much,” Lee said.
She didn’t have to wait long, though. Andrade stepped out of bounds on her first tumbling pass, and again on her third. Lee would be the Olympic champion.
“When I saw that my score came on top, it was just so emotional,” Lee said. “I didn't think I would ever be here. There was one point where I wanted to quit. So to even say that I'm an Olympic gold medalist, it’s just so crazy.”
It also is the epitome of the American dream.
Lee’s parents are Hmong, immigrants from Laos, and their extended family in St. Paul numbers in the hundreds. There isn’t much money, and the medical bills from John Lee’s accident and his rehab have made things all the more challenging.
But nothing was going to cost Lee, or her father, their Olympic dream.
“I want to tell Simone that she truly is the GOAT,” John Lee told NBC, “but she let my baby girl bring me a gold medal."
Just as they'd imagined.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suni Lee and her dad had dreamed of Olympic gold. She made it reality.