When Suni Lee scored gold during the all-around gymnastics competition of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she had one person in mind. It wasn’t her coach, or her teammate Simone Biles or even herself. It was her dad, John Lee. Although her father couldn’t be there with her in person, Lee kept her father close to her heart as she landed each routine. As she finally heard her winning scores, an uproar occurred in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and at the heart of it all was her dad, who nearly jumped out of his wheelchair.
Originally, when Lee’s parents settled in the Hmong community in Minnesota, most parents viewed sports and extracurricular activities like gymnastics as a distraction. The general consensus was that kids’ focus should be on their studies. While John and his wife, Yeev, wanted Suni to succeed in school, they also wanted their daughter to pursue her dreams. So, at just six years old, Lee attended classes at the Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada. Her father also built her a balance beam in their backyard so she could practice.
The stigma around sports wasn’t the only obstacle that the Lees had to conquer. On top of the community’s hesitancy to extracurriculars, gymnastics is an expensive sport to fund. And according to Patsy Thayieng, a former gymnast, the Hmong community the Lees belong to is not particularly wealthy.
“You have to understand, this is a highly inaccessible sport, especially for communities like ours because it’s so expensive and time consuming,” she told Time.
2020 Tokyo Olympics Athlete Shares How Her Father Sacrificed for Her Dream
While Lee’s father was always an inspiration to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics athlete, it wasn’t until 2019 that she began consciously dedicating her competitions to John. After falling from a tree he was trimming, John became partially paralyzed and now uses a wheelchair. The accident occurred just a day before Lee’s competition in the U.S. championships. Despite her concern for her father’s condition, Lee pushed through and won several medals in the process.
Now with the gold medal around her neck, Lee said she shares her latest victory with her father.
“This has been our dream forever,” she told TODAY host Hoda Kotb following her performance. “I wish he was here. He always told me if I win the gold medal he would come out on the ground and do a backflip. It’s sad that he can’t be here, but this is our dream, and this our medal.”
She continued, “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.”