All-around gymnastics champion Sunisa Lee proudly placed her newly-won gold medal around her paralyzed father’s neck on Thursday morning, as she reunited with her family for the first time since achieving Olympic glory in Tokyo.
The 18-year-old, who soared and tumbled her way to all-around victory last week, came face-to-face with her father John, mother Yeev, sister Shyenne and brother Jonah for the first time since returning from Tokyo as they joined the gymnastics star live on the Today show.
Suni’s father John, who was paralyzed from the waist down when he fell off a ladder in 2019, days before she was due to compete in the national championships, burst into tears as he laid eyes on his daughter – who then removed her gold medal from around her neck and placed it around his.
‘You did great, you did awesome,’ John, from Minnesota, told his daughter while pulling her into a big hug.
Reunited! All-around gymnastics champion Sunisa Lee reunited with her paralyzed father John for the first time since returning from Tokyo on Thursday morning
Milestone moment: Suni, 18, proudly placed her Olympic gold all-around medal on her father’s neck as they celebrated her victory together on the Today show
You get a medal, and you get a medal! The teenager then offered her silver team medal to her mom Yeev, before giving her uneven bars bronze to her brother Jonah
It has been exactly one week since Suni claimed victory in the all-around final – a title that many had expected her teammate Simone Biles to win, before the 24-year-old dropped out of contention amid ongoing struggles with her mental health.
However, it has been far longer since Suni has been able to spend time with her family members, who were forced to watch her Olympic achievements from thousands of miles away after traveling spectators were banned from joining athletes in Tokyo because of fears over COVID-19 safety.
Memories: It’s been exactly one week since Suni claimed gold in the all-around – and she went on to win another medal on the bars
‘[It’s] amazing, I haven’t seen [my dad] in so long,’ Suni said of her emotional reunion with her father, whom she has routinely praised for ‘sacrificing everything’ to make her gymnastics dreams come true.
‘I feel so proud and so happy to see [my family].’
Suni, who claimed three medals in Tokyo – gold in the all-around final, silver in the team final, and bronze on the uneven bars – shares some of her Olympic glory with her other family members, offering up medals to her mother Yeev and brother Jonah, whom she also hasn’t seen in weeks.
After his daughter passed over her historic gold medal – having become the first Hmong-American gymnast to compete for Team USA at the Olympics – John expressed his pride and joy over Suni’s achievements in Tokyo.
‘I never thought that I would ever get one of these, and she did it, she got it, she brought it home,’ he said.
‘I’m so proud of her, I’m so surprised, so everything. Good job.’
Suni’s mom Yeev, who immigrated to the US from Laos as a young child, admitted that the road to her daughter’s Olympic success was a tough one for the whole family, confessing that it was heartbreaking for her to watch the gymnast go through such a difficult few years of training.
Hi guys! Suni waved and smiled at her family as she walked out onto the Today Plaza while wearing the three medals she secured in Tokyo
First order of business: Her father John voiced his pride and joy over Suni’s achievements in Tokyo, saying, ‘I’m so proud of her, I’m so surprised, so everything’
Show it off: John held up the medal to show it off to the cheering crowds, before telling his daughter, ‘You did it, good job’
Let it all out: Suni’s mom Yeev said she was crying ‘happy tears’ at seeing her daughter achieve gold medal success
‘[I’ve been crying] happy tears,’ she said of her response to Suni’s performance in Tokyo. ‘Just thinking of all the hard work she has done in the past two years and every time when she’s had a bad day and she comes home crying, that hurts me.
‘Seeing her with a gold medal and winning these medals, it just made me happy. So these are happy tears.’
When asked about the beam that he built for Suni when she was a little girl, John said he never could have imagined it would help his daughter to achieve the Olympic success that she now has.
‘That beam was built out of a piece of wood, right? I never thought would be wearing one of these [gold medals] because of that beam. It is just incredible,’ he said, before joking: ‘I love that beam now!’
Suni’s sister Shyenne, who sat alongside the gymnast’s family and friends as they watched her soar to all-around victory on TV, joined in the praise, saying: ‘I’m so proud. I’m crazy about it, I love it. I’m so proud of her.’
But while her family couldn’t stop gushing about the gymnast’s success in Tokyo – Suni says she couldn’t have achieved any of it without the support of her father and the rest of her relatives.
‘I wouldn’t be here without you,’ she told her dad, before telling the rest of her family: ‘I wouldn’t be here without any of you.
‘This whole dream has been amazing and an incredible journey. To have you all here with me is just amazing.’
Suni’s family was first thrust into the spotlight during the all-around competition last week when video of them cheering her on to victory went viral on social media – prompting an outpouring of praise from around the world.
According to her dad John, the viewing party was arranged in a matter of hours, with hundreds of people from the Hmong community traveling to join the family for the milestone event.
‘We did it in about a day, a day and a half,’ he shared, explaining that a relative offered up the use of a space that could accommodate all of Suni’s supporters.
‘It spiked from 50 to 100 people, but it ended up being over 300, 400 people.’
Golden girl: Suni soared to victory in the all-around final by putting up solid performances on all four of her events – including the beam, on which she is one of the best athletes in the world
Makes sense! The gymnast used to spend hours practicing her routines outside in the family yard, using a beam that her father built for her by hand when she was a little girl
Number one fan: John was paralyzed from the waist down when he fell off a ladder while trimming tree branches in 2019, days before Suni competed in the national championships
Sunisa grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where her family settled to pursue the American dream.
Both of her parents were born in Laos and are members of the Hmong ethnic group. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited to fight alongside American forces to stave off communism — and they paid a heavy price.
About 50,000 Hmong civilians were killed in all, with about 25 per cent of all Hmong men killed in combat. Many were killed by their own government after US forces withdrew, leading many remaining Hmong to flee for their safety.
According to a feature in Minnesota’s Star Tribune, her mother and father were still children when their families fled Laos in the ’70s, ending up first in refugee camps in Thailand.
‘When the U.S. pulled out of Laos, the war wasn’t over,’ her father, a Navy veteran, explained. ‘People had to go to Thailand for their safety, and for a chance to have a better life.’
They weren’t allowed to settle in Thailand, though, and in 1979, when Sunisa’s dad was eight years old, his family emigrated to the US. Her mom emigrated at age 12, in 1987.
‘We know they did it for a reason, so they could be safe and their kids could have a good life,’ Sunisa said of her grandparents’ reasons for fleeing. ‘It’s something very cool for my generation to know they did that for us. And it was all worth it.’
They ultimately made their way to Minnesota, home to about 80,000 Hmong people — who see her as their ‘ambassador to the world.’
Her parents met as adults in Minnesota. According to ESPN, John is not Sunisa’s biological father: He was a divorced dad of two children, Jonah and Shyenne, when he met Sunisa’s mom, Yeev — who was then a single mom to two-year-old Sunisa, whom she named after her favorite Thai soap opera actress.