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Suni Lee talks gold medal win, 'cherished' backyard balance beam she trained on as a kid

In a visit to TODAY, the 18-year-old gymnast tells Hoda Kotb how the Hmong American community in Minnesota helped her on her journey to winning gold.
/ Source: TODAY

Suni Lee's journey to a gymnastics gold medal in Tokyo at just 18 years old all began with a tiny wooden balance beam in the backyard of her Minnesota home.

Lee's father, John, built the beam so she could practice as a child, and it's still standing as a reminder of all the hard work and sacrifice that led to the triumphant moment on Thursday.

"I grew up going on that beam," Lee told Hoda Kotb on TODAY Friday. "If I wasn't in the gym I was always outside on the beam doing extra things because I didn't want to get behind or I always wanted to get better. It was something we kind of cherished because whenever I was bored, I would just go outside and he would watch me and try and coach me even though he didn't know what he was talking about."

"I’m glad I built her that beam,” John Lee told TODAY on Thursday as he smiled with pride.

Lee took home the gold in the women's all-around competition on Thursday by finishing with a final score of 57.433 to top Brazil's Rebeca Andrade. Russian Olympic Committee's Angelina Melnikova taking third.

"If I'm being honest, I did not sleep very good last night," Lee said. "I was just so excited, there was so much going through me head. I still can't wrap it around my head."

She was able to overcome her nerves to deliver the performance of her life.

"I was just telling myself to do nothing more and nothing less, and just telling myself to breathe because in that moment I literally felt like I was going to puke, I was so nervous," she said. "My normal is good enough, so I don't do anything more or anything less, I just have to do what I normally do."

Her father is in the middle of his own inspiring journey as he continues to recover after falling off a ladder in 2019 and ending up paralyzed from the chest down.

"My hands are getting stronger. My balance is not so great, but I'm learning how to cope with that," Lee told TODAY ahead of his daughter's competition. "Before I got hurt I always told Sunisa, 'If you make it to the Olympics, I'm going to run out there and do a backflip.' But I can't do it now."

Suni said on TODAY Friday that her father is now learning to drive with hand-operated controls and is participating in a yearlong trial to stimulate the nerves in his legs.

"My dad means so much to me," she said. "I love him so much. I wish he could be here and cherish this moment with me."

With defending all-around champion Simone Biles opting not to participate, Lee made sure Team USA maintained its dominance in the marquee individual gymnastics event. She is the fifth straight American to capture all-around gold dating back to 2004.

She also made history as the first Hmong American gymnast to make the Olympics and the first Asian American to win gold in the all-around. Her scintillating performance drew a roar from a crowd gathered to watch the event with her family back home in Oakdale, Minnesota.

"They helped me a lot," she said about the Hmong American community back home. "They sacrificed a lot for me, they support me so much. They also have fundraisers, and they're willing to give anything. If we ever need anything they're just so supportive of my whole family."

Lee shared a video on Twitter from the NBC Olympics account of the celebration with a message of gratitude.

“The people i do it all for,” Lee tweeted. “I LOVE YOU ALL.”

The Minnesota teen now has a silver medal from the team competition and an all-around gold medal, but she's not done yet. She will be competing on the uneven bars and balance beam, starting with the bars on Sunday.

"I'm really nervous, but I feel like I'm really ready to compete on bars and beam," Lee said.