Gymnastics’ newly-crowned queen Sunisa Lee has paid touching tribute to her paralyzed father John, praising him for ‘sacrificing everything’ to support her dream of Olympic gold – after admitting that she nearly quit the sport altogether following the devastating accident that left him in a wheelchair.
The 18-year-old’s father was paralyzed from the waist down after sustaining a horrific injury to his spinal cord in 2019, when he fell from a ladder while trimming tree branches – days before Lee, from Minnesota, was due to compete in her first senior national championships.
She went on to compete and finished in second place behind Simone Biles, 24, however she confessed in the wake of her Olympics all-around win that the stress of her father’s accident, coupled with her own injury struggles, left her unsure of her future in the sport.
‘The past two years have been absolutely crazy with COVID and my family and everything else,’ Lee – who also lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19, shared during a press conference.
‘This medal definitely means a lot to me because there was a point in time where I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever get here, [especially with my own] injuries and stuff.’
Champion: Gymnastics all-around winner Sunisa Lee has spoken out about her gold medal victory, revealing it came just years after she contemplated quitting the sport altogether
Tribute: The 18-year-old appeared on the Today show to praise her paralyzed father for ‘sacrificing everything’ to support her Olympic dream
Poignant: Lee (pictured in back with her father and siblings) revealed that she FaceTimed her family and friends at home just moments after her win, saying ‘everyone was crying’
Lee stormed to victory in an incredibly-close final, which was blown wide open by Biles’ decision to withdraw – giving other top contenders like her a much more realistic shot at the gold medal.
Having qualified for the event in third place, behind Biles and Brazilian athlete Rebeca Andrade, the teenager put on an incredibly confident and skillful performance throughout the final to overtake her closest rival and clinch the win.
But while she appeared cool and calm on the surface, Lee confessed that she was actually battling horrific nerves that left her feeling as though she was going to ‘puke’ before she stepped up onto her third event, the balance beam – which is where she surged ahead into first place.
‘In that moment, I literally felt like I was going to puke, I was so nervous,’ she told the Today show’s Hoda Kotb, revealing that she kept telling herself over and over to do ‘nothing more, nothing less’.
‘Nothing more, nothing less… because my normal is good enough, so I don’t need to do anything more, nothing less,’ she explained.
Moments after her win was announced around the arena, a tearful Lee said she FaceTimed her family and friends – who were busy celebrating her success at home in Minnesota.
‘It was right before the medal ceremony,’ she said. ‘I FaceTimed my sister and everyone was screaming and crying. We had a little moment, like I did it… we did it.’
Lee also admitted that her achievements in Japan have been slightly bittersweet because her family and friends were not allowed to travel and support her as they had always planned to do – particularly dad John, who had always joked about doing a backflip to celebrate her first Olympic medal.
Proud: John Lee (pictured cheering his daughter on from Minnesota) was left partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair after falling from a tree in 2019
Leading lady: Lee claimed victory in the all-around in Tokyo following her teammate Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw – effectively blowing the competition wide open
‘My dad means so much to me, I love him so much,’ she said. ‘I wish he could be here and cherish this moment with me.’
Speaking of her father’s dedication to her Olympic dream, Lee praised him for ‘sacrificing everything’ to ensure that she had every possible shot at a gold medal – even building her a DIY beam when she was just a young girl because they couldn’t afford to buy a proper one.
‘That beam… I grew up going on that beam,’ she said of the sentimental apparatus – which still sits in pride of place at the family home.
‘If I wasn’t in the gym, I was always outside on the beam doing extra things because I didn’t want to get behind. I always wanted to get better.
‘It was something that we cherished because if ever I was bored we would go outside and he would watch me and try and coach me, even though he didn’t know what he was talking about.’
She added: ‘We both worked for this. He sacrificed everything to put me in gymnastics. Both my parents really have. This is my family’s medal, my medal. My coach’s medal. He doesn’t get a medal, so I’m dedicating it to all of them.’
The gymnastics star – who is the fifth consecutive US athlete to win the Olympic all-around title – also shared a few details about her father’s recovery, explaining that he has been doing a medical trial for the past year in the hopes of restoring some of the movement in his legs.
Touching: Lee opened up about the beam that her dad built for her when she was little, revealing she would spend every possible practicing on it while he watched on
It paid off! It was during the balance beam event in the all-around final that Lee overtook her Brazilian rival Rebeca Andrade and moved into first place position
‘He’s doing a little bit better,’ she said. ‘He’s starting to learn how to drive [and] he’s been doing this year-long trial [that] stimulates the nerves in his legs so it’s really exciting.’
As well as paying tribute to her father, Lee, who is the child of two Laotian refugees and the first-ever Hmong-American gymnast to represent the US at an Olympic Games, voiced her gratitude for the Hmong community – explaining that its members have continued to rally around her and her family throughout her quest for gold.
‘They helped me a lot, they sacrificed a lot for me, they support me so much,’ she said. ‘We also have fundraisers and they’re willing to give anything. They’re so supportive of my whole family.’
Video of Lee’s family and friends celebrating her victory at home became a viral sensation shortly after the all-around competition – with the gymnast posting it on her own Twitter account, where she sent ‘love’ to them all, while describing them as ‘the people I do it all for’.
The gymnast has two more shots at gold in Tokyo, having qualified for both the uneven bars and balance beam finals – both of which she is supposed to compete in with Biles, who has yet to reveal whether she will take part, having dropped out of the team and all-around finals amid her ongoing struggles with mental health.
Despite the speculation surrounding the doubt over Biles’ participation in the events, Lee said she feels ‘ready’ to compete – having qualified for both finals in a strong position for medal contention.
‘I’m really nervous but I feel like I’m really ready to compete on bars and beam,’ she said.