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2021 Athlete of the Year: Olympic Gold Medalist Suni Lee

When her teammate came down with the twisties, she bounded into the breach, helping Team USA get silver and earning an all-around gold she never even imagined.

Olympians Caeleb Dressel and Suni Lee are the recipients of the 2021 Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year award for their medal-winning performances in Tokyo at the Summer Games. For more Sportsperson of the Year coverage, click here.

Nearly four months after U.S. gymnast Suni Lee won an Olympic gold medal, it was gone.

Well, not gone. She just couldn’t put her hands on it. After a whirlwind 10 days in Tokyo, and just a few weeks on campus at Auburn, where she is a freshman, the 18-year-old Lee moved to Los Angeles to compete on Dancing With the Stars. She stored her medals—that gold in the individual all-around competition, a silver in the team event and a bronze in the uneven bars—in a safe in the closet of the two-bedroom apartment in her extended-stay hotel. But the safe’s door kept swinging open when she tried to close it.

“So I’m like, Oh my gosh, I’m just gonna click ‘lock,’” she recalls. “So then it locks, and I’m like, Uh-oh. I tried literally every code—000, 111.” She laughs and adds, bashfully, “I know.”

Life since the Olympics has been hectic: the reality show, the photo shoots, the fame. Model Hailey Bieber now follows her on Instagram. SZA congratulated her on her performance. She has eaten dinner with The Bachelor’s Matt James. When Lee pictured life after the Games, she did not picture any of this. But then, she also never pictured winning all-around individual gold.


Lee spends time before each meet visualizing her performance, trying to work through the nerves. Her imagination betrayed her in the leadup to Tokyo. “Bad,” she says. “I fell on every single thing.”

Her anxiety only got worse once the Games began. She and her family—parents Yeev Thoj and John Lee, and siblings Jonah, Shyenne, Evionn, Lucky and Noah—had planned their trip from Minnesota to Tokyo to the last detail. Then the pandemic hit, and they learned that no spectators would be allowed to attend. Lee had to compete with only her coach, Jess Graba, and her teammates on site.

Anxiety made her stomach heave throughout the week leading up to the team final, and she woke up crying that morning. “I was so nervous,” Lee says. She reminded herself “not to do anything more or anything less because my normal was good enough.”

It helped that she was competing alongside the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, whose dominance gave the U.S. some margin for error. But after flubbing a vault early in the competition, Biles pulled out with a case of the twisties—essentially, gymnastics vertigo. Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum burst into tears as Biles explained, right there on the floor, that she was withdrawing. Biles’s vault had left the U.S. fighting for silver. Lee barely had time to panic before realizing that as the second-strongest gymnast on the team, she was suddenly the American anchor.

“We knew that this was an opportunity,” Lee says. “This was an opportunity for us to go out there and show people that we were meant to be on the Olympic team, not just because Simone was gonna carry us through.”

Amid the chaos Lee chose the more difficult of her two possible uneven bars routines and nailed it, earning a career-high 15.400. A few minutes later she added a 14.133 on the balance beam, the second-highest score of the night.


Lee had been scheduled to compete in only those two events, but the U.S. needed her on the floor exercise as well. Nursing injuries to her left foot and ankle, she had not practiced her floor routine in three days. But Graba reminded her, “We’ve done this a million times. You were meant to be here. Go out there. Do your thing.” She scored 13.666 to preserve second place.

She felt the team had won silver. She feared fans would think it lost gold.

“Team USA, when they go to the Olympics, they win,” Lee says. “It was in the back of our heads, like, People are gonna hate us. They’re going to be disappointed. But we all knew that that was a really good performance. And we didn’t need a gold medal for people to know what was going on, because that is a really hard situation to go through. And we all had to step up to the plate to do that.”

Next For Lee was the individual all-around final. She spent the intervening two days putting pressure on herself. She had trained to be “within a mistake of Simone,” says Graba. If Biles faltered, Lee would be in a position to take advantage. But no one really expected that to happen—least of all Lee. So now she had to reshape her entire view of herself.

“Not having Simone there just made it super nerve-racking,” she says. “You had Simone at the top, and I’m like, O.K., I’ll just stick with second! I’m good there!

Again, Lee reminded herself: Her normal was good enough. She pushed away her fear. “I totally don’t get it,” says sister Shyenne. “I personally would not be able to do that. But she’s very strong.”

That morning, Lee made a gamble. Graba had been trying to persuade her for seven months to lower the difficulty on her floor routine by eliminating her fourth pass. If she hit the easier version perfectly, she could improve her score. Lee refused. But she noticed that the judges were scoring her landings harshly, meaning that a misstep on that difficult last pass could be catastrophic. Hours before the final, she agreed to make a change. They quickly drew up new choreography, but Lee didn’t have time to practice the routine straight through.


Her 14.600 on vault that evening tied a career best. She notched the highest score in the competition, a 15.300, on her specialty, the uneven bars. And though she looked shaky on the balance beam, she came up with a 13.833 to pull ahead of Rebeca Andrade of Brazil. All that remained was the floor exercise.

Lee took a small hop on the landing of the first pass. She nailed the second. She nailed the third. The score flashed: 13.700, good enough for first. Andrade, the only remaining competitor within reach of gold, stepped out of bounds twice on her floor routine. Lee burst into tears—happy ones, finally.

She finished the Olympics with a bronze on the bars, a result she still finds disappointing. But Lee does not have much time to dwell on what could have gone differently. While she was in L.A., she studied and took her Auburn classes online from 8 a.m. to noon every day, then practiced for Dancing With the Stars. New state laws and NCAA rules mean she can profit from her name, image and likeness; she and her management team are still working out which companies to endorse. She is also an 18-year-old who is not entirely sure how to clean the lint trap in the dryer. She has a lot to figure out.

“My whole life, I did gymnastics and I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she says. “And now I’m like, What do I want now?

Fame, as it turns out, has been complicated. “It’s very overwhelming,” Lee says. “I’m still trying to figure out how to manage all of it.” After missing out on a normal childhood, she had hoped to be a regular college student. But the opportunities that are suddenly available to her will not be there in a year. So she has said yes to nearly everything. She moved to L.A. to dance on national TV, lived alone and tried to adjust. Did the people she was meeting want to be her friend or want a piece of her? She is still not sure.

Now she’s back at Auburn, settling into dorm life. Graba says Lee will decide on competing in the 2024 Games in the coming months. First, she’ll begin practice with her college team. Lee will eat dinner in the dining hall and attend Tigers games and stay up all night studying. She will be a regular college student—with three Olympic medals. She finally got them back, and nobody can take them. 

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