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Suni Lee's Clutch Gold for U.S. Highlights Display of Gymnastics' Global Promise

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IJuly 29, 2021

Suni Lee stepped up with the Olympic performance of her lifetime in Thursday's individual all-around final.
Suni Lee stepped up with the Olympic performance of her lifetime in Thursday's individual all-around final.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

What does gymnastics look like without its GOAT?

Turns out, it's still incredible. Some gymnastics fans (I won't say who) have argued that all-around competitions aren't as interesting as long as Simone Biles continues to dominate. While they're dead wrong—who could possibly think this sport needs less Simone?—the women's all-around final Thursday in Tokyo was exciting, just in a different way.

That's because, for the first time in a long time, this competition began with no clear front-runner and a wide, multi-continent range of podium contenders, giving us a panoramic view of the best in the sport—like Sunisa Lee, the new Olympic all-around champion.

Considering everything these athletes have overcome to be here, it was a welcome departure to spread the attention around, and it hopefully signals a shift in perspective as the sport moves forward.

In an era where scoring favors difficulty and athletes are able to medal even with a fall, sometimes a misstep or missed connection can seem trivial. Here, though, every tenth counted—Lee beat Brazil's Rebeca Andrade by just over a tenth of a point—harkening back to the days of the perfect 10 when, in order to win, you had to be nearly perfect.

Sunisa Lee was just that. Coming in as the United States' top athlete, she started her day with the vault of her life and then overcame iffy moments on bars and beam to post strong scores there, before punctuating her performance with a solid floor routine.

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Bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova of the ROC team takes a photo with silver medalist Rebeca Andrade of Brazil (left) and gold medalist Suni Lee after the individual all-around final.
Bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova of the ROC team takes a photo with silver medalist Rebeca Andrade of Brazil (left) and gold medalist Suni Lee after the individual all-around final.Julian Finney/Getty Images

We've come to expect this kind of performance from her. With her always calm demeanor, Lee came to these Olympics with high expectations. She delivered, even in qualifications, as her teammates underperformed, and in the team final, where Biles' withdrawal meant Lee had to perform on floor.

Her win is even more remarkable considering all she's dealt with personally in the past two years.

Shortly before the 2019 U.S. national championships, her father was paralyzed in an accident. Then, during the pandemic, she lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19.

When she was able to return to the gym, she injured her foot, damaging her chances of making the Olympic team. Her recovery was swift and impressive, though, and she dominated on the national stage as the country's No. 2 all-arounder before making the Olympic cut.

She represents the U.S. in Tokyo, but as the first-ever Hmong American Olympic gymnast, she also represents the small Hmong American community, which she says has supported her every step of the way.

Her father, always expressing pride in his talented daughter, told Elle that if she made the Olympic team, "It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever." It was a sentiment of parental love, but that sentiment also signifies the great expectations on Lee, making her win all the more impressive.

Rebeca Andrade became the first Brazilian woman in Olympic history to medal in gymnastics, with her silver in Tokyo on Thursday.
Rebeca Andrade became the first Brazilian woman in Olympic history to medal in gymnastics, with her silver in Tokyo on Thursday.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Silver medalist Andrade knows a lot about pressure too: Her third ACL tear came months before she was slated to help Brazil qualify a team to the Olympics at the 2019 World Championships. Without the team members needed to compete at full strength, Brazil finished 14th and didn't qualify.

Andrade used the year after the 2020 Olympic postponement to recover. She not only represented her country as one of the two Brazilian female gymnasts who qualified for the Olympics, but she also earned Brazil's first medal in women's gymnastics.

You could tell from the start she was both determined and ready to make the podium—she started with the Cheng of her life, a gorgeous vault where she got great air.

Her only real error of the day was on floor, where she went out of bounds, losing her chance to take gold. Still, her performance was an incredible personal triumph that also made history for her country.

So many other athletes got to show off their talent, not in relation to Biles, but as Olympians and medal contenders in their own right.

Bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova finished strong for the Russian Olympic Committee team.
Bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova finished strong for the Russian Olympic Committee team.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee came in third after a great performance, one she'll be very happy with after a rough outing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Nina Derwael of Belgium broke her own record for Belgium's highest placement in the sport, coming in sixth.

Similarly, Mai Murakami's fifth-place finish beat Keiko Ikeda's record set in 1964 for Japan's best placement.

Knowing what these athletes have been through, and how incredibly close their highest potential scores were, made this all-around final one of the most exciting in recent history.

Biles deserves all the credit for what she's accomplished in the past eight years—she's singlehandedly revolutionized the sport. But as we've seen in the past week, the amount of attention and pressure that we've put on one athlete is incredible. And it's possible to appreciate the plethora of talent at these Olympics, something even Biles and her teammates have been doing—they were spotted cheering for Melnikova from the stands—without diminishing her achievements.

One day before Biles made the decision to withdraw from the team final competition, she wrote on Instagram, "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times."

Maybe it's time to shift some of that weight around.

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