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With her idol Simone Biles out, Sunisa Lee eyes an all-around gold medal she never saw coming

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TOKYO — Eighteen-year-old Sunisa Lee didn’t land here this month holding any reasonable expectation that she would win gold in the women’s all-around competition, the most prestigious title in all of gymnastics.

Why would she? Simone Biles was going to be here too, looking to defend her 2016 Olympic crown and riding a win streak that dated back to 2013. That includes five world championships and plenty of recent triumphs over Lee herself.

Simone was Simone. Everyone else pretty much shot for silver.

Well, Biles is now out of the competition. She withdrew on Wednesday so she can continue to concentrate on her mental health, which caused focus issues while trying to compete in Tuesday’s team competition. Biles dropped out of that after just one rotation, an awkward, low-scoring, nearly disastrous vault.

And just like that, this entire gymnastics meet opened up.

The all-around contenders now include Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, a powerhouse on the vault and floor who qualified second. And the Russians, Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova, fresh off winning the team competition. And even Jade Carey, the Phoenix native who will replace Biles as a late substitute.

And, perhaps especially, Lee, a product of St. Paul, Minnesota, who at June’s U.S. trials actually bested Biles in the all-around score on the second day of competition, 58.166 to 57.533.

Sunisa Lee's chances to win a gold medal in the all-around, like everyone else's, opened up once Simone Biles decided to withdraw. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Sunisa Lee's chances to win a gold medal in the all-around, like everyone else's, opened up once Simone Biles decided to withdraw. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Biles won the overall event due to a huge lead she built on day one, but it was both an early sign of her struggles and Lee’s ascent.

“I think that gives me a lot of confidence,” Lee said at the time. “I know it probably won’t happen again … but I was really excited.”

She’s been rising since age 6, when she first set foot inside the Midwest Training Center in Minnesota to take a class. She almost immediate spun heads. Her natural talent was obvious.

“As soon as she came to the gym it was pretty evident she was special,” said Jeff Graba, who founded the gym with his brother but is now the head coach at Auburn University, where Lee will attend and compete in the fall. “In our sport, you can tell. Strength to weight ratio. Flexibility. She had the whole package.”

Lee, for her part, was just having fun. She was one of five children in a Hmong American family. The Hmongs are an ethic group from Southeast Asia who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. When that war was lost, they had no land or nation to call home.

Many fled to Thailand as refugees before immigrating to the United States. Here they've tried to build lives in a country they once fought for, only to struggle to find recognition, let alone acceptance.

The largest population is in the Twin Cities. Lee counts scores of relatives, but also the distinction of being an outsider. The gym was a refuge, though, a place where nothing mattered but work and results.

It’s how she quickly became competitive on the national elite level. It’s not just talent.

“With any young gymnast, what you wonder is, emotionally, is she willing to work hard?” Graba explained. “Is she dedicated? Is she focused? Does she have this immense work ethic, this drive?

“She had it naturally,” Graba continued. “She just had it. And then the intangibles. She has always been fearless, extremely courageous in her gymnastics. Her competitive spirit is second to none.”

Now comes the biggest night of her career. This is anyone’s championship to win. All four of the main contenders qualified in a pack, scores ranging from 57.399 to 57.099. When Biles is on her game, she can routinely hit 58 to even 60 and run away with the title.

This will now be about which of the others can perform best on the harshest of spotlights.

Nothing could rattle Lee on Tuesday. Not Biles dropping out. Not unexpectedly getting called to replace her in floor. With no pre-event training — either physical or mental — she went and knocked out her performance anyway, scoring a credible 13.666.

“I was planning on not doing floor, so I was like, ‘OK?’” Lee said when she was told she’d be competing. “And I did a few [practice] turns and when I had to go out there and do it I just did what I did.”

“She is amazing,” Biles said. “She had a 30-second touch [amount of practice time], which just shows you how amazing and well-trained she is and how brave and smart she is when she does train.”

Lee has plenty of motivation. She is here for her father, John, who was partially paralyzed after an accident in 2019.

And she is here for the Hmong community, both in Minnesota and across the country. The chance to serve as a way to educate more Americans about who they are and why they are here is powerful.

“People hate on us for no reason,” Lee told Elle Magazine earlier this year. “It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say.”

Or, as John told Elle: “It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever. It’ll go down in history.”

Winning all-around will certainly go down in history. It’s the chance to etch your name in with forever champions — Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton or a string of recent American stars such as Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and, of course, Simone Biles.

The opportunity has presented itself, certainly not how Lee would have wanted it. She counts Biles as not just a friend, but an idol. She called the situation “sad.”

Nonetheless it’s here. One night with everything on the line, and Suni Lee is suddenly right in a gold medal mix she never saw coming.

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