Jul. 29—St. Paul teen Sunisa Lee made history Thursday morning, winning the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around competition at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
She finished with a final score of 57.433 points to edge sliver medalist Rebeca Andrade of Brazil by 0.135 of a point in an intense competition that came down to the very last move.
As the U.S national anthem played over the loudspeakers at Ariake Gymnastics Center celebrating her victory afterward, Lee's eyes filled with tears of joy. Meanwhile, nearly 6,000 miles away in Oakdale, her family and friends celebrated the emotional moment at a jam-packed watch party at a local event center.
After leading for the first half of the competition, Andrade finished with the silver, and Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova grabbed the bronze, just two days after leading the Russian Olympic Committee to the gold in the team competition.
The 18-year-old Lee is the fifth straight American to win the gold medal in the all-around competition, joining past champions Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and, of course, Simone Biles, the GOAT of women's gymnastics.
"It's crazy," Lee said. "It doesn't seem like real life. It didn't even think I'd ever get here."
Biles' absence opened the door for Lee — and she rose to the occasion with Biles cheering from the stands. Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, and MyKayla Skinner sat alongside Biles to cheer on Lee and U.S. teammate Jade Carey, who finished eighth.
Though most people considered Lee the favorite to win the gold medal with Biles out, she still had to go out and perform on the biggest stage. And that is exactly what she did.
Jess Graba, Lee's coach since she was in elementary school, knew from the start that she was a special athlete, one that had "a lot of spunk" and was fearless. He and his wife, Lee's other coach, Alison Lim, worked closely together to usher Lee to the top of the sport but also keep the sport fun.
Winning, of course, was also important. Graba said he and Lee often discussed winning the Olympic gold medal, even in the era of Biles, because he knew she had the potential to do it under the right circumstances. Even if Biles had been in the competition in Tokyo, he said, he thought Lee could come close to beating her.
"Too much of the conversation has been about one person," Graba said, adding that he was thrilled that the world has had a chance to see Lee at her best and appreciate her, as he and his wife have done for more than a decade. "I thought she was this good all the time. I feel best that everybody else got to see it. She finally got to show it."
The competition started on a high note for Lee as she stuck her landing on vault for a score of 14.600, While she trailed in the overall standings at that point, Lee was still in a good position, staying within striking distance of the top spot with her weakest of the four events out of the way.
That paved the way for uneven bars, an event in which Lee holds a massive advantage over the rest of the world. She proved why, producing a score of 15.300, twirling effortlessly through the air, and surging into second place with balance beam next on the docket.
After watching Carey fall off the 4-inch slab of wood, Lee stepped up knowing she needed to nail her routine if she wanted to have any chance of taking home the gold. Her nerves were even throughout her routine, and while she wobbled a couple of times, Lee regained her balance, then stuck her landing on the dismount to net a score of 13.833.
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That put Lee in first place heading into floor exercise, with Andrade right on her tail. Lee walked onto the mat knowing she needed the performance of a lifetime, and she delivered, nailing her routine to post a score of 13.700.
That pushed Lee's total score to 57.433, and when Andrade stepped out of bounds during her routine, everything started to set in. After more than a decade of hard work — from the countless flips on the living room couch at her parent's home in St. Paul, to the many falls during daily practices at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, and everything else in between — Lee had done it.
She was finally an Olympic champion.
"I want people to know that you can reach your dreams and you can just do what you want to do," Lee said. "Because you never know what's going to happen in the end."
Wire services contributed to this report