Sunisa Lee may not have been the star attraction in the Ariake Arena in Tokyo on Thursday night, but she wrote a story that deserved to escape the shadow of her teammate Simone Biles, who watched her from the front row of the sparsely-populated stands.
The 18-year-old Lee pipped powerhouses including Russia’s Angelina Melnikova and Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who had finished second to Biles in qualifying and appeared to have gold at her mercy before two mistakes on floor handed gold to the 18-year-old Minnesotan.
Biles cheered and clapped when Lee bettered her own mark in qualifying to score 13.7 and regain the lead she held into the final rotation, then the cameras swivelled in Lee’s direction when Andrade’s 13.666 to follow confirmed an unlikely all-around gold medal.
“It feels so surreal,” said Lee, the first Hmong American not only to win gold but to compete at an Olympic Games. “The past two years with Covid have been crazy. There was one point I wanted to quit. To be here and to be an Olympic gold medallist is just crazy.
“It means a lot to me to have Simone here cheering for me. Just to have her in the arena was very helpful for me because she is an inspiration to me and someone I look up to. So having her there helped me a lot.”
Victory for Lee always seemed a long shot despite achieving the third best score in qualification, with Biles garnering all the attention as she set about emulating Vera Caslavska and becoming the first woman to retain an all-around title since 1968.
Biles withdrew on the eve of the final citing a desire to protect her mental health. But still the limelight seemed unlikely to fall on Lee, with Andrade having closely trailed Biles in qualifying, and the vast experience of Melnikova also making a more persuasive case.
Andrade led at half-way, with less than one point separating the top five gymnasts, and even though Lee topped the standings heading into the final piece of apparatus, their qualifying scores dictated that the Brazilian was still favourite to become the first gold medallist from South America.
However while Lee nailed her routine and improved her qualifying score on floor by almost 0.3, Andrade stepped out twice, effectively costing her the gold, and bringing Biles and her team-mate Jordan Chiles, the team-mate who stepped in on Tuesday when Biles abruptly withdrew after Tuesday’s first rotation of the women’s team final, to their feet.
Biles has still not decided whether she will return next week in the individual apparatus finals, for which she has qualified in all four. But she took to social media on Thursday to thank fellow gymnasts for their “love and support”.
She tweeted: “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
Some reports in the United States suggest Biles will elect to compete in the beam and bars finals, but not vault or floor, which would correspond with her intimation that she is suffering from a lack of confidence known in the sport as ‘twisting’.
The phenomenon, to which a number of gymnasts have admitted being afflicted, relates to issues of spatial awareness and rhythm, and self-doubt over the ability to perform particular moves or routines.
US teammate and three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who has spoken previously of his own mental health concerns, paid tribute to Biles after competing in the men’s all-around final on Thursday - an event Biles watched from the stands.
Mikulak said: “We’ve had some conversations. She seems like she’s doing what’s best for her. It’s awesome to see that she’s gotten to go against the pressure of society and do what’s best for herself.
“I am really proud of her for prioritising mental health and making sure that everyone knows and understands that we’re not just athletes.
“We’re human beings, and sometimes it’s too much, and when that’s the case you have to do what’s best for you.”
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