What Dreams Are Made Of – Suni Shines for Gold

By Christy Sandmaier and Chris Korotky

“This is our dream. This is for my mom and my dad.” – Suni Lee

With a stunning performance marked by grace and grit and backed by the belief and inspiration of her family, Sunisa Lee soared today in Tokyo. Olympic Champion. What an amazing and beautiful ring that incredible distinction has. A place in the history books. A guiding light for the next generation. Life-changing is not an understatement. 

Carly. Nastia. Gabby. Simone. And now Suni. The fifth straight woman to win the title for the United States, Lee joins an elite group of athletes the world will know by first name. Mary Lou Retton’s legendary performance earned the first Olympic All-Around title for the U.S. in 1984. But it would be two decades before an American would top that podium again. Carly Patterson’s victory at the 2004 Athens Game signaled a resurgent era and the United States hasn’t relinquished that throne since, an astonishing feat.

With her trademark technique and style in jam-packed sets combined with finesse, beauty and a calm quiet confidence, Lee bolted to the top of the leaderboard with a 57.433. That score just edged out Brazilian superstar and emotional favorite Rebeca Andrade (57.298) for silver, who has had such an incredible journey. No Brazilian woman has ever earned a podium position in the All-Around at the Olympic Games. History yet again. And remember, she came here without her full team even qualifying to the Games. We’ll be sharing even more on her in the days to come. The exquisitely stylish Angelina Melnikova (ROC) captured bronze with a 57.199, adding to her collection here of gold with her team. Each athlete has a story, each a special journey to be here at this moment. They are more than athletes, they are strong women, each with a dream of their own. Just getting to this moment was something to celebrate.

This was for sure, one of the most emotional and dramatic All-Around competitions ever. And a game of tenths and tenacity throughout as the athletes put their very best out on the floor time and time again. Zoned in and super-focused from start to finish, Lee put together four of the best routines of her life including her top score, a 15.3 on bars. She opened with a stuck Yurchenko double full and it was Game On from there. On floor, she delivered in style. And then, it was a waiting game. When the final results flashed her name in the top position after all competitors had gone, her face said it all. A smile we won’t soon forget.

Lee’s journey to the Games was an emotional one, marked with injury, a little uncertainty, and family tragedy. Her greatest supporter and strength, her father John suffered a spinal cord injury helping a friend cut a limb from a tree, when he fell from the ladder, just two days before Lee left for Championships in 2019 where she finished second. During this season, she has also mourned the deaths of her aunt and uncle due to COVID, injured and nursed back a broken foot that seemed to jeopardize her lifelong dream and navigated a challenging situation for Team USA in Tokyo. 

“The past two  years have been absolutely crazy with COVID and my family. This medal means a lot to me because there was a point in time I wanted to quit and I didn’t think I’d ever get here. There are a lot of emotions, but I’m super proud of myself for sticking with it,” she said. 

Her gymnastics has always been stunning, her style unique and her performances collected. But she has also been in the shadows of the legendary Simone Biles. At the Olympic Trials, Lee prevailed on day two, but Biles topped day one and the two-day standings. When defending Olympic Champion Biles withdrew from this competition in Tokyo, it could have gone a number of ways. Though the door was open, would Lee be able to surge to the top? Rising to the occasion, she showcased some of the best gymnastics of her life and did it in her signature style to win. (She also had the Save of The Games to date on, yes, you got it, the wolf turn on beam). Today, Biles was in the stands, Lee’s biggest supporter. One Olympic Champion passing the torch and cheering on the next.

It was an extraordinary, raw moment and historical on the world’s biggest stage. The kind of dream only the Olympic Games allow us to believe.

Andrade’s journey without her team must have presented its own challenges, but she also rose. After four straight Olympic appearances for the team, she was here as an individual, but her country was front and center in her heart and with her fans. It wasn’t just for herself. It was also for Brazil. And it wasn’t an easy road for Andrade either. She tore her anterior cruciate knee ligament in 2019 for the third time in four years. In Tokyo, she proved she was here to play, qualifying second to Simone Biles after prelims and making her country proud at every step along the way. 

She stuck an amazing Cheng to open the competition proving qualifications was no fluke and was second by 0.101 heading into the final event. Her performance on floor lit up the arena as usual, even without fans. That signature megawatt smile was present as she took in the magic of the moment, but steps out of bounds lowered her score (13.666 compared to 14.066 in qualifying). Andrade’s silver medal in the Olympic Games and the first-ever Olympic medal for Brazil in women’s gymnastics history, must feel like gold to a country who has longed for a podium position. It is the story of her lifetime. 

Melnikova, who earlier in the week led her team to gold, was right in the mix throughout the competition with stunning and stylish routines. Her presence on the floor is regal and she has an incredible ability to draw in an audience – again, even if not in the stands, but on TV. Every detail pulls you in. She tells a story. It is pure art.

“It was a very interesting finals because it was a mystery who was going to take the gold medal. I am very happy for Sunisa. I am happy for all of them,”  she said.

We’ll not soon forget this competition and the magic that transpired across the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. To the medalists, remember this moment, treasure it always. It’s yours. You’ve made your country proud. You’ve made the world proud. You’ve inspired so many. You can’t imagine how many you’ve motivated to enroll in gymnastics classes around the world because they want to be the next Suni, Rebeca or Angelina. We celebrate you. We celebrate your place in history. 

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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