A wide-open meet due to Simone Biles’ withdrawal resulted in US gymnastics teammate Suni Lee seizing an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo to continue the Americans’ recent domination of the individual all-around competition.
With Biles seated in the stands after the defending gold medalist dropped out of the team and individual competitions for mental-health reasons, the 18-year-old Lee became the fifth straight American to win the marquee individual event at the Summer Games.
“Coming into this competition I didn’t even think I could be competing for a gold medal. I was competing for a silver medal,” Lee told reporters after her historic win. “It doesn’t feel like real life. I haven’t even let it sink in yet.”
Lee, whose father, John, was paralyzed in a 2019 tree-trimming fall from a ladder while helping a friend, already was the first Hmong-American Olympian in US history.
Lee, who is slated to attend Auburn in the fall, called her sister and spoke with her parents – who built her a balance beam in their backyard when she was a child — at an emotional family watch party back in St. Paul moments before ascending the medal stand to don her new hardware.
“We were all just crying on the phone,” Lee said. “It was a very, very surreal moment. I am super proud of them. My parents are just the most amazing people in my life. I love them so much.”
Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade stepped out of bounds twice on the floor exercise with a chance to surpass Lee, but she still became the first gymnast in her country’s history to earn a medal in the all-around. Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee grabbed the bronze. Biles’ replacement, Jade Carey, finished eighth.
Team USA had earned the previous four Olympic golds in this event: Biles (2016 in Rio de Janeiro), Gabby Douglas (2012 in London), Nastia Liukin (2008 in Beijing) and Carly Patterson (2004 in Athens).
Lee received a promising score of 14.600 with a double-twisting Yurchenko on her vault, not her strongest event, and the Minnesota native moved within seven-hundredths of point behind Andrade for the lead with a 15.300 with a stuck landing on the uneven bars. Lee nearly fell from the balance beam on a triple wolf turn but steadied herself for a score of 13.833, enough for her to take over the top spot by barely one-tenth of a point over Andrade entering the final rotation.
Lee’s score of 13.700 on floor exercise opened the door for Andrade to pass her to take the gold with a score of at least 13.801, but Andrade stepped outside the boundaries on two of her three tumbling passes for a 13.666.
Carey, who finished ninth overall in the preliminary round, made a small hop on her vault landing for a 15.200, one point behind Andrade in that rotation. But the 21-year-old Arizona resident scored a 13.5 on the uneven bars and then just an 11.533 following a fall from the balance beam to effectively eliminate her from medal contention.
The 24-year-old Biles had led the field following the qualifying round, but the four-time Olympic gold medalist withdrew following a faulty vault on her first rotation during Tuesday’s team competition finals.
Biles’ teammates — Lee, Grace McCallum and Jordan Chiles — earned the silver medal despite her absence, finishing behind the ROC contingent.