Suni Lee keeps American all-around victory streak at Olympics intact

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 29: Sunisa Lee of Team United States competes in the floor exercise during the Women's All-Around Final on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 29, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 29: Sunisa Lee of Team United States competes in the floor exercise during the Women's All-Around Final on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 29, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The teenager is the sixth U.S. woman to claim the all-around title at the Olympic Games

Suni Lee has kept the American streak alive. Coming into these Games, an American woman has won the women's gymnastics all-around title in each of the last five Olympic Games.

"It feels super crazy, I definitely didn't think I would be here in this moment with a gold medal," Lee said. "I haven't really let it sink in yet because I feel like it's not real life."

She totaled 57.433 for gold, holding off Brazil's Rebeca Andrade (57.298) and ROC's Angelina Melnikova (57.199). Lee joins U.S. greats Mary Lou Retton (1984), Carly Patterson (2004), Nastia Liukin (2008), Gabby Douglas (2012) and Simone Biles (2016) as the only U.S. women to win the all-around title at the Olympic Games. Lee is the first Hmong American gymnast.

Andrade's medal is the first for a South American woman in the women's all-around final. Prior to Thursday, the best finish by a Brazilian woman was Jade Barbosa's 10th place finish in 2008.

"I am very, very happy," said Andrade. "I'm very thankful to all the people who have supported me."

After a disappointing Rio 2016 that found a talented Melnikova on the outside of the all-around final looking in, the 21-year-old said she had completely transformed in the five years since those Games.

"When the score came up, all my dreams came true. This time [Tokyo], I knew that I was going for a medal and I was way more confident [than Rio]," she said. "I was 16 in Rio, so this was very different."

Melnikova, who was also part of the winning ROC team Tuesday, stars in the Olympic Channel original series All Around, which has chronicled her journey to gold and bronze in Tokyo 2020.

On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics announced that 2016 Olympic all-around champion Biles, the heavy favourite prior to the start of the Games, would not participate in the final to focus on her mental health.

"After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health," a statement from the organisation read. "Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week’s individual event finals."

The 24-year-old qualified to all four apparatus finals, scheduled for 1-3 August.

Suni Lee's rise to the top

Biles absence presented a huge opportunity, but that came with huge pressure. It was only the second time in nine years and first since she skipped the 2017 world championships, enjoying time off after winning four gold medals at Rio 2016.

"It was a lot to take in, just because I was coming in to take a silver spot, but I feel like I just kinda went out there and did it for myself," Lee said of Biles' absence in the field. "I didn't really focus on the scoreboard, wasn't focusing on any of that because it just wasn't going to be a good competition if I did."

But the top group of qualifiers, which included all three medallists, stepped up to the plate, delivering clean four-for-four performances. After all six went cleanly through the usually treacherous balance beam, the final results hinged on the floor exercise. Melnikova went first, scoring a 13.966 and, after a long wait, went into the lead.

But Lee followed and delivered a 13.700, her highest score on the event in three outings in Tokyo, to put the pressure on Andrade. The Brazilian, whose Olympic hopes appeared in jeopardy when she tore her ACL for a third time in June 2019, bounced out of the floor area on her first and third tumbling passes. She earned a 13.666 to finish just .135 behind Lee.

As the final score flashed, the U.S. delegation in the stands was delighted, including Biles, with several members jumping for joy. Lee embraced coach Jess Graba, as she wiped away tears of joy.

"It was really scary, I knew that I did the best routine that I could, so waiting there was probably the scariest moment," she said of the wait, "that's why I hate the waiting game."

For Lee, it marks the culmination of a difficult two years. Her father, John, fell from a tree just before the U.S. championships in 2019. He is now paralyzed from the waist down.

The coronavirus pandemic struck her especially hard, with Lee's aunt and uncle dying of the virus. Lockdowns in her native Minnesota keeping her out of the gym for month.

When she finally did return to the gym, she injured her ankle so badly it would dog her for the better part of a year. But Lee has never backed down, adding events and difficulty as 2021 has progressed, culminating in her win in Tokyo.

"With the past years of COVID and my dad, and all that stuff, I'm super proud of myself for making here it because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit," Lee said. "But I'm super happy I didn't because I wouldn't be here with this medal."