TOKYO — It would have been so easy to quit. Suni Lee thought about it more than once, when her broken foot was hurting, when her gym was closed because of the pandemic, when COVID-19 put off the Olympics for an extra year.
Lee didn't forget about those hard times Thursday, when she stood on a podium in Tokyo with an Olympic gold medal around her neck. The St. Paul gymnast stuck it out, even when she couldn't quite see where that persistence would lead her. She found it a little hard to believe the answer she got on a dramatic night in Tokyo, when Lee won the all-around crown at the Olympic Games.
With defending gold medalist Simone Biles cheering from the bleachers, the biggest prize in women's gymnastics was up for grabs in one of the most-watched events of any Summer Olympics. Lee, 18, seized the lead on the third of four rotations and hung on to become the fifth consecutive American to earn all-around gold. Her score of 57.433 topped Brazil's Rebeca Andrade (57.298), who led through two rotations, and Angelina Melnikova of Russia (57.199).
"When I saw my score came out on top, it was just like so emotional,'' Lee said. "There was a point in time where I just didn't think I would ever get here. I'm super proud of myself for sticking with it and believing in myself.
"To say I'm the Olympic gold medalist, and to be here, is just so crazy. It doesn't feel like real life.''
The victory instantly put Lee on the list of greatest Minnesota Olympians, leading Gov. Tim Walz to declare Friday Sunisa Lee Day in the state. A Minnesotan has never won an individual gold medal in gymnastics, a marquee sport in the Summer Games. And Lee joins the two-medal club in Tokyo with Lakeville swimmer Regan Smith, who less than 12 hours earlier added a silver to her bronze in the pool.
Lee's signature uneven bars routine was key to her victory. She performed her most daring set, with a 6.8 difficulty mark, and earned a score of 15.300. That tied for the highest score by any gymnast in the competition.
Her beam routine also scored well, despite a moment when Lee nearly lost her balance. That put her on top by .101 of a point entering the final rotation, with Andrade and Melnikova still within striking distance.
With all three performing on floor exercise, Lee made another leap of faith. Coach Jess Graba changed her floor routine at the last minute, taking out a tumbling pass in a strategic gamble. Lee scored 13.700, and when Andrade stepped out of bounds twice, the title went to Lee by .135 of a point.
"I know how incredible she is, but not everybody gets to see it,'' said Graba, Lee's longtime coach at Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada. "She finally got to show it.''
The first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team, Lee now is the first to win an Olympic gold medal. Back in the Twin Cities, her family — father Houa John Lee, mom Yeev Thoj, five siblings and a legion of extended kin — whooped and wept at an event center in Oakdale, where they gathered to watch her compete. And she's not done: she qualified for the finals of the uneven bars on Sunday and the beam on Tuesday.
The gold rewarded Lee's determination during a difficult year. After the pandemic delayed the Olympics by 12 months, she broke her left foot, lost two relatives to COVID-19 and could not train for a few months when state shutdowns closed her gym. She still has lingering pain from the foot injury.
At the Olympics, Graba said, the world got to see the toughness on display every day at his gym. Lee showed she could handle pressure in the team finals, when Biles bowed out after one rotation because of mental health concerns.
Though Lee was shocked and sad, she brushed away her tears and earned the team's top scores on three events to help the heavily favored U.S. team to the silver medal. Thursday, she would have to deal with another set of expectations.
The women's all-around is the event that made Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton superstars, and the U.S. has won the title at every Summer Games since 2004, with Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Biles keeping a lock on the crown.
With Biles out, Lee felt it was up to her to keep the streak going.
"I was starting to put a little too much pressure on myself,'' Lee said. "Knowing that Simone was gone, I felt like people kind of put that pressure on me, that I had to come back with a medal. So I tried not to think about it. I tried to just focus on myself.''
In Biles' absence, several women had designs on the title. Lee was third in qualifying behind Biles and Andrade. Melnikova and her teammate Vladislava Urazova had led Russia to team gold, and American Jade Carey — who got into the 24-athlete field when Biles dropped out— was poised for a run.
On Thursday morning in Tokyo, Lee called her dad in Minnesota before he went to bed. Suni relies on John's pep talks to keep her calm and focused before meets. COVID-19 rules in Japan meant the Lee family could not come to watch Suni compete, but she needed to hear her father's words more than ever.
John instructed her not to concentrate on the scores, but on doing her best. "He told me they were just so proud of me, no matter what,'' Suni said. "So I just went out there and did what I do best.''
Which was pretty much everything. Though Lee has trained little on vault because of her foot injury, she stuck a double twisting Yurchenko to start the meet. She stood fourth after that first rotation, behind Andrade, Carey and Melnikova.
Andrade and the two Russians laid down a marker on bars with high-scoring routines. When Lee launched hers, she said her swing didn't feel ideal, but she fought through her signature routine and again stuck the dismount. That moved her into second, .066 behind Andrade.
Lee's beam routine was one of the more difficult performed Thursday, and it had a few hair-raising moments. On a wolf turn — in which the gymnast crouches and spins on one foot —she tipped backward but regained her balance. With a score of 13.833, it was enough to put Lee into the lead by about one-tenth of a point, but the title would be won or lost on floor.
Graba had been trying all night to keep the meet fun for Lee. He admitted afterward that it was hard not to be anxious, especially after the late adjustment to her floor routine.
Lee performed four tumbling passes in team qualification and finals. Graba had taken note of the judging and thought taking out one of the passes would allow for cleaner execution and a better score, while giving Lee's legs a break with individual finals yet to come.
"We thought it was smart,'' Graba said. "I think Suni trusted me. I'm not sure I trusted myself.
"Before she went up there, I told her, 'This is what you've talked about for a long time. We're here to enjoy it. Enjoy the moment.'''
Lee's score of 13.700 was good, but Andrade still had a shot. Needing a score of 13.802 to win, she stepped out of bounds — an automatic deduction — on her first tumbling pass. On her last, she stepped out again.
When the final scores were revealed, the other members of the U.S. team — Biles, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum of Isanti — jumped and yelled in the front row of the bleachers. Lee did a video chat with her family, then stepped up on the podium before the U.S. flag was raised.
"I think it's more rewarding now because of what she had to go through,'' Graba said. "Everything we've had to fight, everything she's had to overcome.''
Lee didn't disagree. She could have quit. She chose to stay. Now, she's an Olympic champion.
"I didn't think I would ever be able to win a gold medal,'' she said. "I'm speechless.''