(CNN) Suni Lee just accomplished what no one expected three days ago — not even herself. “This is such a surreal moment. I just feel like I could have never been here ever. It doesn’t even feel like real life,”
the 18-year-old said after winning the most coveted medal in gymnastics. She also extended the United States’ 17-year winning streak in the women’s all-around competition — a dynasty that seemed in jeopardy this week when the previous Olympic all-around champ,
Simone Biles, announced her withdrawal. But Lee’s historic performance highlighted by the most difficult, astonishing uneven bars routine in the world also capped an immensely difficult journey.
She’s been marred by injuries, lost an aunt and uncle to Covid-19 and grappled with a horrific accident that left her father paralyzed.
In 2019, her father John was helping a neighbor trim a tree when he fell and became paralyzed from the waist down.
The father of six children supported Li’s gymnastics from the beginning and helped her perform skills at home, sometimes frustrating her mother.
“I always jump around on the bed, or let my dad watch me do things like backflips,” Li told TwinCities.com. “My mother is finally bored”, that was when she signed up for gymnastics.
But the family had limited means, so John Lee built a balance beam in the backyard for Suni to practice on, the father told NBC’s “Today” show.
Just days after her father’s devastating accident, Suni Lee made her senior debut at the US gymnastics championships. At age 16, she defied expectations capturing the gold medal on uneven bars,
the bronze on the floor exercise, and the silver in the all-around just behind Biles. Now, at age 18, Lee joins an elite list of American Olympic all-around champions:
Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. Back home in Minnesota, John Lee pumped his fist in the air as he watched his daughter reach the pinnacle of her sport.