Reality Master

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This was supposed to be the night that Simone Biles added yet another star-spangled page to the history books, by becoming the first gymnast to defend an women’s Olympic all-around title for more than 50 years. Instead a new American talent emerged from the shadow of greatness.

While Biles watched and whooped from the stands, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee held her nerve in an epic four-way tussle for gold. She had already made waves by becoming the first Hmong American to compete for Team US – and then again during a nerveless performance in Tuesday night’s team competition after Biles withdrew citing anxiety concerns. This, though, was a performance bursting with energy, boldness and power.

It proved just enough to pip the brilliant Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who was flawless in her first major international competition since reconstructive knee surgery, until two late errors on the floor cost her gold by just 0.135 of a point. The Russian Angelina Melnikova took bronze.

It also capped a story so remarkable that it could have been scripted by Hollywood. It began long before Lee was born, when the CIA recruited the Hmong to keep the communist North Vietnamese out of Laos – and then pivoted sharply when Laos fell in 1975.

Lee’s parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were among thousands of Hmong refugees who made the perilous journey to Thailand and then the US. Most did not find the promised land: 60% of Hmong Americans are on low incomes and more than a quarter live in poverty.

Many of them, though, packed into a community centre to watch their golden girl take an Olympic title. “The community is amazing,” Lee explained afterwards. “They were all together watching. Everybody got to see me winning a gold medal and I wish they could have been here. There were actually too many people to fit in my house, so they went to a community centre and watched it together.”

But Lee’s words were tinged with sadness, as she admitted things had not been easy for many of her friends and family. “The Hmong community are the most supportive people ever and I just feel like many don’t reach their goals,” she added. “But I want people to know that you never know what’s going to happen in the end. So don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lee certainly hasn’t, even though she has had plenty of bad breaks and horrific heartaches. In 2019, for instance, her father became paralysed from the chest down after falling off a ladder, while last year she lost her aunt and uncle to Covid-19.

Lee says now that the immense sadness she felt made her stronger, as she had to fight off negative thoughts. But her mind was clear when her father talked to her before the final with a simple message. “He just told me to do what I normally do, to go out and do my best, and in my heart I was already a winner.”

It was her father who inadvertently guided her on the path that took her to a gold medal. As a six-year-old, Lee was always jumping on her bed or having her dad “spot” her while she did backflips. Finally, her mother gave in and took her to a gymnastics club.

Even so, a year ago she had entertained thoughts of quitting, after breaking a bone in her foot during the pandemic. “It just wasn’t getting any better and felt like I wasn’t ever going to be able to make it to the Olympics,” she explained. But her injury healed just in time for her to take advantage of the biggest sliding-doors moment of these Tokyo Olympics.

It would have been easy for Biles to have stayed away from the all-around final. No one would have minded after she spoke so powerfully about her mental health struggles. Instead she took a front row seat in the stands and, for one night only, became the world’s biggest gymnastics superfan.

Every routine was lived. Every fall felt. Whenever a gymnast performed a perilous move on the uneven bars, Biles would throw her hands to her face and nervously peer through her fingers. It did not matter which country they were from. Biles’s response was the same for the Russian, Brazilian and American gymnasts. Frequently, hers was also the loudest voice in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre as she shouted encouragement and applauded noisily after every safe dismount.

The gymnasts noticed. As Lee put it afterwards: “It means a lot to me to have Simone here cheering for me. Just to have her in the arena was very helpful because she is an inspiration to me and someone I look up to.”

Melnikov offered similar sentiments. “Yes, of course I heard her,” she said, smiling. “I admire her work. And I hope she gets better.”

Earlier on Thursday, Biles had put out a message of thanks on social media for such sentiments. “The outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realise I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before,” she said.

Those were encouraging noises. And there is still a chance that Biles will be back for the individual events for which she has qualified for the finals, which run into next week.

But ultimately this night was about Lee as, once again, a US star took gold in the individual all-around competition – albeit not the one we had all expected when the Olympics began.