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Get to Know Olympic Gymnast Suni Lee Ahead of the 2024 Summer Games
After winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the Team USA gymnast is headed to Paris to defend her title.
While Simone Biles is the headliner for Team USA women’s gymnastics, Suni Lee has quickly made a name for herself after winning the gold medal in the individual all-around competition at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
In fact, not only has she earned the recognition as one of the most elite gymnasts in the world with her win, her gold medal-winning performance was also one for the history books. The then 18-year-old became the first Hmong American to represent the U.S. and capture the top prize awarded to the best all-around gymnast — a feat that makes her the fifth American woman in a row to win the prestigious honor, according to Team USA.
Here’s a look at everything you need to know about American gymnast, Suni Lee...
Where is Suni Lee from?
Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on March 9, 2003, Sunisa Phabsomphou Lee, who goes by Suni, is the daughter of Yeev Thoj and John Lee who both immigrated to the United States from Laos. Coming from a large family, the superstar gymnast has two sisters, Shyenne and Evionn, and three brothers, Lucky, Noah, and Justin, according to Team USA.
What Olympic medals has Suni Lee won?
All earned through her tremendous efforts at the 2021 Tokyo Games, Suni Lee has won three Olympic medals, including her aforementioned gold medal in the individual all-around category, as well as a silver for the team event and a bronze on the uneven bars, the category she is best known for.
“This is such a surreal moment,” revealed Lee after taking home the gold in individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Games, according to CNN. “I just feel like I could have never been here ever. It doesn’t even feel like real life.”
Despite fan favorite Simone Biles withdrawing from that competition, jeopardizing Team USA’s chances in the individual all-around category, Lee persevered, fueling the United States’ 17-year dynasty of winning that competition, according to CNN.
Is Suni Lee close with her father John?
While her father John is not her biological dad, the pair’s unbreakable bond is truly something special to behold. Forever supportive of Suni’s passion for gymnastics since her journey began at the age of six, John said in an interview with Craig Melvin on TODAY that he was never going to let a lack of monetary resources get in the way of cultivating his daughter’s athletic love.
"She goes to the gym, and she practices, but we don't have a beam here," John divulged. "So, I couldn't afford a real beam, so I built her one. That beam is still here.”
After John fell off a ladder in 2019 in a tree-trimming accident and was paralyzed from the chest down, Lee was devasted to the point that she didn’t want to compete in the national championships in Kansas City, but her committed father urged her to go as she “worked so hard for it.” The result? Lee put up a valiant effort, finishing second to Simone Biles. Despite having a hairline fracture in her tibia, Lee followed up her success in Kansas City by mounting a triumphant victory on the uneven bars, earning the gold medal at the U.S. Championships.
According to the Olympics website and CBS News, Lee dedicated her performance to none other than her doting father, saying, “I was thinking of my dad the whole time, and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud."
Simone Biles' Gift to Suni Lee’s Father
After witnessing Lee reuniting with her family for the first time since capturing her gold medal in Tokyo, Simone Biles, who considers Lee one of her best friends, was so moved when Lee draped her coveted prize around her paralyzed father’s neck on TODAY that the superstar gymnast helped gift John an upgraded electric wheelchair from Quantum Rehab that would go on to be customized specifically for John.
"Hi, Mr. Lee, it's Simone,” Biles said in a video message on the program. “I love your daughter, Suni, so much and I know how much she loves you. You have done so much for her so I reached out to my friends at the TODAY show to see if we could do something special for you. Hope you like it."
The heartwarming surprise left an indelible impression on John, whose backflips once measured up to those of his daughter, that his gratitude wasn’t just heard, it was also felt.
"Oh, my God," John mustered, overcome with emotions. "Oh my, that is awesome.”
Who is Suni Lee dating?
After the Asian American gymnast became the first Team USA gymnast of Hmong descent to compete and subsequently win the individual all-around competition at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Suni Lee went Instagram official on December 26, 2021 with her boyfriend Jaylin Smith, who represents the Trojans on the University of Southern California’s football team. Prior to making a name for himself on the fabled USC football squad, Smith’s appeal skyrocketed after appearing alongside Snoop Dog in the docuseries, Coach Snoop.
Suni Lee on Dancing with the Stars
Suni Lee joined season 30 of Dancing with the Stars. Performing with her professional dancer partner Sasha Farber, Lee rocked out to Queen, and not even a stomach issue that caused her to abruptly rush off the stage during a performance could prevent her from finishing her routine. The former Auburn University gymnast and Farber survived that round, but they were eventually eliminated in the semifinals. Inspired by Lee’s gutsy performance, Farber hailed her as a “true warrior.”
Suni Lee's Health Issues
Suni Lee was forced to opt out of the Women’s World Championships Selection Event in Katy, Texas, in September due to a kidney-related issue that also previously forced her to step away from the Auburn Tigers gymnastics team in April.
“I have been dealing with a non-gymnastics related health related issue involving my kidneys,” Lee tweeted in a statement explaining why she had to step away from collegiate competition. “For my safety, the medical team did not clear me to train and compete over the last few weeks. I am blessed and thankful to be working with the best specialized medical team to treat and manage my diagnosis. My focus at this time is my health and recovery.”
While Lee looked to be back in her Olympic form during a guest appearance this November on the Universal Studios Lot as a guest of NBCUniversal, she detailed her traumatic journey with the unspecified kidney-related illness that caused her to gain a staggering 45 pounds at one point.
“I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes,’’ detailed Lee, according to USA Today. “My eyes were swollen shut. It was just so scary. I haven’t had a really bad day in a while, but in the beginning, it was like I was waking up swollen. My fingers were so swollen they wouldn’t fit into my grips, and I couldn’t hold on to the bar. …My whole body was swollen because I was retaining water, so I couldn’t do a flip. …So, it was really different, and I had to learn how to work through it.’’
Despite the difficult setbacks she’s faced in her recovery and subsequent training, the perpetually resilient Lee still remains poised with her signature brand of confidence that only an athlete of her sublime caliber possesses.
“We’re still working on trying to figure out how to balance all of it because I do have good days and bad days,’’ Lee added. “But with the good days, I just take advantage of what I’m able to do, and on the bad days, I just do basics and try and stay as safe as possible.’’