Skip to main content

Olympians Suni Lee, Caeleb Dressel Win SI's Athlete of the Year

Suni Lee and Caeleb Dressel win SI Athlete of the Year

Caeleb Dressel and Suni Lee have come a long way since standing on the podium multiple times during the Tokyo Olympics. Now, they add Sports Illustrated's Athlete of the Year award to their collection. 

Both gold medalists were honored for rising to the top of their respective sports—Lee in gymnastics and Dressel in swimming—on Tuesday night during The Sports Illustrated Awards.  

"The one thing that I would say would be you don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great," Lee, 18, said. "And I think that's something that's so important because people tend to get caught up in trying to live up to a standard."

The first-generation Hmong American brought home silver in the team final, and went on to snag gold in the women's all-around competition and a bronze on the uneven bars. Lee was honored earlier this year on the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world earlier this year, finding herself under the "Pioneers" subcategory.

But, she almost did not make it to the Tokyo Olympics, sharing on Tuesday that she almost quit gymnastics because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"It was just really hard for me to keep stay motivated," Lee said. "But I think the one thing that kept me going was my parents and my coaches for pushing me to be my best every single day."

Dressel, 25, made history while in Tokyo as he swam six different events )12 total swims), set record-breaking times and brought home five gold medals. He's only the third American male swimmer to win three individual golds during a single Summer Games.

When accepting his Athlete of the Year award, he gave insight on an argument he had with his coach at the height of the pandemic in June 2020. Dressel had been training for months on end "with no guarantee of having a pool at the end of the summer." He grew frustrated and formulated an argument that he would later yell at his coach. 

"He looks at me and he says, 'You know, that all sounds great. You just tell me what you want for me.' And my jaw hit the ground because he was supposed to be yelling back at me. I realized I needed a coach," Dressel said. "And that moment, I've never been more humbled in my life because to be honest, I don't know what I'm doing. I'm really good at swimming fast, but I don't know how to swim fast. I need someone to teach me that." 

The only thing Dressel said he will take credit for is that he's "a really good listener." 

"And [coach] Troy's the guy that tells me what to do. My family in the front row, my wife, my agent. I have people who tell me what to do, and that's what I'm good at."