John Lee said he always saw greatness in his daughter, gymnast Sunisa “Suni” Lee.
He says his instincts came true when his daughter qualified to represent the United States team, making history as the first American Hmong to compete in the Olympics. Representing the country, the 18-year-old gymnast won gold on Thursday in the women’s individual all-around final.
Suni’s interest in gymnastics was fostered from an early age, John told “TODAY”, claiming that he even built a wooden beam for her that still remains in their backyard.
“She goes to the gym and she trains but we don’t have a beam here. So I couldn’t afford a real beam so I built one for her.”
John was in the stands watching Suni as she secured her spot for the Tokyo Olympics in June after placing second, just behind Simone Biles, at the Olympic Trials.
This was particularly emotional for him as it was one of the few times he had seen his daughter compete in person since a 2019 accident. Two days before Suni competed in the United States National Gymnastics Championships in August of the same year, John fell from a ladder while helping a neighbor cut down a tree and was paralyzed from chest to toe.
Afterward, Suni considered skipping the championships, but her father pushed her to keep fighting for her dreams, according to ESPN. John FaceTimed his daughter from her hospital bed on day one of the competition telling her to do her best and that she would always be his number one. Suni went on to win gold on uneven bars and took second overall in the all-around behind Biles.
As for his health, John said he was slowly learning to move.
âMy hands are getting stronger. My balance is not very good, but I am learning to manage it, âhe said.
And now, with Suni representing the United States team, John has shared his thoughts on his daughter’s accomplishments.
âI’m proud. The family is proud,â he said. âThe community is very proud of her.
Suni described her Hmong community as “very close” in May in an interview with her father for Elle magazine before qualifying for the Olympics, saying more than 300 people attended her family’s annual camping trip. It is also common at Hmong events for people to come to her to ask for photos, support which she said she finds “amazing.”
The gymnast said she had struggled through the past difficult year with a surge in anti-Asian hatred, wondering why “people hate us for no reason.”
âIt would be cool to show that we are more than what they say,â she said.
John told “TODAY” that before his accident he always told his daughter that if she was in the Olympics he would “run over there and do a backflip.”
âBut I can’t do it now,â he joked.
Asked about his secret to raising an Olympian, he says everything is Suni.
“I talk to her, I motivate her but the real secret is that I think it’s her,” he said. “I think she’s pretty natural.”
And although Covid-19 restrictions halted plans to watch her play in person, Suni’s family will proudly watch her from their Minnesota home.
“Looking at her I’ll be thinking, ‘If she brings home some medals, I hope some golds, I mean, that would be so good for the family, the community and for the United States.” , John mentioned.
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