Suni Lee: Olympic All-Around Gold Medalist
The bio of Suni Lee is an interesting story about a tenacious young woman, who has become an inspiration to many. She comes from an immigrant family with meagre means, and through hard work and determination, Suni Lee has achieved her dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist. She has overcome several injuries, the loss of loved ones, and her father’s accident. Her story is an inspirational one, as she is now crowned the first Hmong American athlete to not only make a U.S. Olympic team but also win a gold medal.
Yeev Thoj gave birth to Sunisa “Suni” Phabsomphou on March 9, 2003, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Suni’s biological father was not a part of her life, so she was raised by her mother. Two years after Suni’s birth, Yeev Thoj met John Lee and the two began dating. John Lee had two children from a previous marriage, Jonah and Shyenne. John Lee and his children quickly became a part of Suni and her mother’s permanent family. Suni looked up to John Lee as father figure, and later she changed her last name from Phabsomphou to Lee. Suni is one of six children. Suni has two sisters named Shyenne and Evionn, and she also has three brothers named Lucky, Noah, and Jonah. Suni’s mother and father, Yeev Thoj and John Lee, were both born in Laos. Her parents are also Hmong. Hmong is an ethnic group found in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and parts of China. The Hmong fought beside the US during the Vietnam War. After the Vietnam War ended, Suni’s parents fled to the United States to start a better life for themselves and escape their war torn country. A large number of refugees resettled in St. Paul, Minnesota area and formed a close knit community. Suni parents were proud of their heritage and instilled that pride in their children; never knowing their daughter would become the first Hmong-American Olympic gymnast and gold medalist. Their daughter, Suni, would become an inspiration and voice for her family and their culture.
Suni’s gymnastic life began at the age of six, when her mother decided to enroll her in gymnastics classes. Suni was constantly doing flips on her bed, and her mom thought gymnastics classes would be a good fit for her daughter’s energy. Suni started attending Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, Minnesota to begin her training as a gymnast. Suni still trains at this gym today. Suni’s talent and hard work eventually caught the eye of Jess Graba, a coach at Midwest Gymnastics Center.
At home, Suni practiced gymnastics on a balance beam created by her father out of an old mattress. Her father could not afford to buy her a balance beam to practice on, so he made her one. Suni’s parents taught her that money wasn’t needed to create self-worth and that determination and hard work will lead to success.
After Suni’s first year of training, Suni started to compete and won the all-around at a state meet.
Suni moved up three levels at the age of eight and qualified for elite at the young age of eleven years old.
Junior Gymnastics Career
In 2015, Suni competed in the Hopes division. She became junior elite in 2016 and made her junior elite debut at the 2016 U.S. Classic.
In 2017, Suni made the junior national team and made her international debut at the Gymnix International Junior Cup. The US won the gold medal in the team event and Suni won the silver medal for the uneven bars.
In 2018, Suni competed at the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships. She took home a gold medal for the US team final and she won a silver medal for vault, floor exercise, and balance beam. She finished fourth all-around. Sadly, a month later, an ankle injury forced Suni to withdraw from the Pan American Junior Championships in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Suni worked hard to recover, and in July, went on to compete at the 2018 U.S. Classic. She was able to finished fifth in the all-around and won the gold medal on balance beam even without doing a dismount.
In August, at the 2018 U.S. National Championships in Boston, Suni won the bronze medal in the all-around and won the gold medal on the uneven bars.
Senior Gymnastic Career
Suni made her senior debut in 2019 at City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy. She received gold in the team for uneven bars and floor events. She also won bronze for her performance on the balance beam.
A month later, Suni injured her ankle, and in June sustained a hairline fracture to her tibia. Later in the month, she competed at the American Classic on only bars and beam. She placed second on beam and fifth on bars.
In August of 2019, Suni was 16 years old and set to compete in her first senior USA Gymnastics National Championships in Kansas City. Only a few days before she was set to compete, her father fell off a ladder while helping a friend. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. Suni wanted to skip the competition and stay with her father, but her father encouraged her to go. She had worked too hard to miss this opportunity. Suni went to the competition and placed second, after Simone Biles. She also won gold on the uneven bars. She dedicated her win to her father.
In September of 2019, Suni competed at the US World Championships trials. She placed second in the all-around.
In 2020, the pandemic hit; COVID-19 took the lives of Suni’s aunt and uncle. Suni was close with her aunt and uncle, who had often babysat for her as a child. She was only able to say goodbye through a video call.
In March of 2020, Suni was set to compete at the Stuttgart World Cup, but it was later canceled due to COVID-19. Later that year, Suni spent two months recovering from a broken bone in her left foot, and another two months recovering from an Achilles tendon injury. Suni did not compete for the rest of the season due to the pandemic. Suni spent her time healing and working on her performance as an overall gymnast and on her uneven bars routine. She didn’t let her injuries, or her father’s injury, or even the grief from the loss of her aunt and uncle stop her from achieving her dream, and she wouldn’t let down all those people who cheered, believed, and supported her.
In February, Suni competed at the 2021 Winter Cup on bars and beam. She placed first on bars, and placed third on beam.
In April, Suni competed at the American Classic only on the uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. Suni placed first on both uneven bars and balance beam.
In May, Suni competed at the U.S. Classic on only the uneven bars and balance beam. She fell off both apparatuses and placed tenth and eighth.
In June, Suni competed at the 2021 National Championships. Her last competition scores would not stop her from trying to achieve her goals. During the first day, Suni completed a 6.8 difficulty uneven bars routine, scoring a 15.3. Suni finished second in the all-around, first on the uneven bars, and second on the balance beam. Suni qualified to compete at the upcoming Olympic Trials.
On the first night of the Olympic Trials, Suni took second place behind Biles. On the second night of competition, she scored a 58.166, which was higher than Biles’ 57.533. However Suni’s two-day overall score was less than Biles’, and she finished in second place. She had qualified to join the Olympic team.
Summer Olympics 2020: Tokyo
At the age of 18 years old, Suni Lee became the first Hmong American athlete to not only make a U.S. Olympic team but also win a gold medal. Suni’s win was a triumph for her, her family, her country, but also the members of the Hmong community. She is also now the first Asian American woman to win a gold Olympic medal in an all-around competition as well. She is an inspiration, showing that hard work and dedication creates success. Melvin Carter, Mayor of St. Paul, even declared Friday, July 30, 2021 to be Sunisa Lee Day to honor her win. Suni’s parents believed in their daughter so much, that they had even bought tickets to the Tokyo Olympics, before their daughter had made the team. They knew she would make the team and wouldn’t miss their opportunity to see her in action for the world. They had even planned a trip to Laos to celebrate and show their children where they come from and help them better understand their heritage. The family is stopped often to take photos with others from their community who admire and are inspired by Suni and her family.
Suni Lee won the gold for the USA in the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final. She defended the title without the aid of the team’s reigning champion, Simone Biles, who chose not to compete. Jade Carey took Biles’ spot on team USA, and came in 8th place. Suni’s final score was 57.44, Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade finished with a 57.298, and Russia’s Angelina Melnikova won the bronze.
After the Olympics
Suni will be making good on her 2017 pledge to attend Auburn University. Suni will attend Auburn University, on a gymnastic scholarship, where she will continue to compete in gymnastics for Auburn University. She will be a freshman come the fall, but has not yet declared a major. Suni is an amazing athlete with a bright future ahead; she has not ruled anything out, so we may see her again in Paris next year.