And she never saw it coming.
“It was just so crazy because… I never thought I would ever win the Olympics,” she told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview. “All I wanted to do was go to the Olympics and compete at the Olympics. I never wanted to go for the fame or the money or the attention. It was just always my biggest dream. I wanted to be at the Olympics.”
That dream came true in late June 2021 at the U.S. Olympic trials, where by virtue of her second-place finish in the two-day all-around standings she automatically qualified to the U.S. team.
Though that moment was “surreal and emotional,” she says it didn’t hit her that she was truly an Olympian until weeks later as they drove from their pre-Games training camp to the Tokyo village.
“When I saw the Olympic rings in the water, I got really emotional and I started crying,” Lee recalled. “I was like, ‘I'm actually at the Olympics right now. This is insane.’”
A long road to all-around gold
Her success at the Games, however, was anything but.
Two years earlier, Lee had turned junior talent to senior success on the U.S. gymnastics scene, finishing second at the U.S. nationals behind only Simone Biles. She followed that up with three medals (team gold, uneven bars bronze and floor exercise silver) at the 2019 worlds.
The pandemic caused delay was tough for Lee. She struggled with injury and the loss of close relatives to COVID. But she persevered, again finishing second at the 2021 U.S. championships behind Biles.
That long road was on her mind when she heard her name announced for the U.S. Olympic team for the first time in St. Louis.
Winning Olympic all-around gold was not, however, even though on the second day of the U.S. trials Lee had posted a higher score than Biles. (Biles still won the event, which was based off a combined two-day all-around standing.)
“I was competing for second place [behind Biles] the whole year, so it was just like just go out there and do my normal thing,” Lee said. “I wasn't thinking about winning.”
When Biles withdrew from the women’s team final to prioritise her mental health and, subsequently, the all-around final days later, Lee felt the impact.
“When that happened, it was devastating,” she said.
Still, Olympic gold wasn’t on her mind.
“I never thought that I would ever be... that I could ever win the Olympics,” she admitted. “I think I just talk so down on myself. I was never like, ‘Oh, I could go to the Olympics and I can maybe win.’”
Her focus remained laser focused: do what she had done all season and not overthink. Lee says she felt that would be enough to land her on the podium.
She delivered in one of the most memorable all-around finals in recent Olympic history, holding off Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade and ROC’s Angelina Melnikova. Her solid opening performance on the vault, gave way to a spectacular exercise on the bars. That bar routine she credits for her win.
She shook off wobbles on an opening element on beam before wrapping up the gold with a stellar floor exercise performance.
“I was so nervous walking off, I couldn't even smile or laugh or be happy, like I just wanted to cry. Just so stressed out,” she recalled of the final moments of the competition. “I remember telling my coach [Jess Graba] after I got my score and he's like, ‘Don't cry yet.’ It's like, ‘Okay,’ so, then, we had to wait for the next routine.”
Then, the tears flowed.
"That was very hard for me, being vulnerable."
While Lee says the title wasn’t on her mind, it was on Graba’s.
“Whenever I talked to Jess about it, he would always tell me, like, ‘You could win the Olympics. Like, you just don't believe in yourself like that,’” she said. “When I did win, I gave him a hug and he was like, ‘I knew you could do it. I already told you.’”
That self-doubt, for better or worse, may have helped her take gold, she said.
“I didn’t get too far ahead of myself, and I didn’t let it get to me when I did compete because I didn’t expect that much out of myself,” Lee explained.
But, buoyed by Biles’ global conversation sparking moves in Tokyo, she’s committed to improving her self-confidence and taking care of her mental health – and sharing it on the platform her success has wielded with the hope of helping not only herself to grow but others.
“I think I kind of learn from [Biles] whenever she posts about mental health or talks about it, because it's very helpful for me, especially looking up to my role model. She's somebody I'm obviously going to listen to and I think people are afraid to talk about it almost because it can be used against us, which is really sad,” said Lee. “I think that's why I become more vocal about it, because I just want people to know that you can be able to talk about it and not have to be scared because everybody goes through it.”
A turn on the popular reality-competition show ‘Dancing with the Stars’ pushed her out of her comfort zone, and “helped me grow as a person. I’m definitely more outgoing, more talkative and a little less say,” she says.
She’s also turned to journaling – and sharing some of her entries online – as she rolled through a historic freshman campaign as a member of the Auburn University gymnastics team.
Sharing her inner thoughts with the 1.7 million followers she’s amassed on Instagram hasn’t been easy or natural, but she feels it’s important.
“Just posting my journaling… that was very hard for me, being vulnerable, because those are obviously things that I want to keep to myself,” admitted Lee. “But it's like other people I think sometimes don't really know where to start…. So, that's why I kind of try and be vocal and talk about it.”
Enjoying the now
It’s part of an on-going process for Lee, one that she isn’t quite sure where it will lead. The 19-year-old is spending the summer after her golden triumph trying to make up for lost time, enjoying activities for which she previously did not have time.
That included a first for Lee – a vacation to Mexico.
“So, that was actually my first vacation,” Lee said with a laugh. “Because I was always training, I could never go whenever my family would go on vacation. I always had to stay here with my teammates and train so I could never go. This is the first time that I went, so I made the most out of it.”
The trip included trading her trademark uneven bars and balance beam routines for snorkeling and ATV rides.
She attended her first U.S. team training camp since Tokyo in July but does not plan to return to elite competition in 2022.
“The plan is to go back to Auburn and compete another year. I think right now I'm just training, getting my body back into shape, having fun, doing fun skills and just kind of seeing where it takes me,” Lee said. “I don't really have a commitment to anything right now other than college gymnastics just because you never know how things can go.”
And Lee has proven, for her, that can mean things she’s never even dreamed possible.