How Suni Lee’s Paralyzed Father Inspired Her Rise to Olympic Gold

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All eyes are on Sunisa “Suni” Lee after the Minnesota gymnast stepped up to win the women’s all-around category at the Tokyo Olympics following Simone Biles’s departure. Suni rose to the top with persistence, hard work, and incredible parents who inspired her in the face of adversity.

Suni’s mom, Yeev Thoj, was a single mother when she met John Lee, a recently divorced father of two. The couple never married, but Suni considers John to be her dad, and even changed her last name to Lee. Growing up, John and Suni bonded by climbing on, jumping off, or competing in almost anything. A family video shows the father and daughter doing backflips off a lounge chair on a Florida beach when Suni was eight.

John always encouraged Suni’s love for gymnastics, helping her perform tricks around the house, sometimes to the frustration of her mother.

“I was always jumping on the bed or having my dad spot me while I was doing backflips and stuff like that,” Suni told TwinCities.com. “Finally, my mom got tired of it” and enrolled her in gymnastics.

But the Lee family had limited means. “She goes to the gym and she practices but we don’t have a beam here,” John told ELLE. “I couldn’t afford a real beam, so I built her one,” transforming a lumpy old mattress into a homemade balance beam in their backyard.

“That beam is still there,” he added.

In 2019, John was paralyzed from the chest down after falling off a ladder while helping a neighbor – two days before Suni was to compete in the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships. Suni considered skipping the competition, but her father urged her to pursue her dreams. “John FaceTimed his daughter from his hospital bed on the first day of the competition to tell her to do her best and that she would always be his number one,” NBC reports. Suni then won gold on uneven bars, dedicating the victory to her father. “I was thinking of my dad the whole time, and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud,” she said, according to Olympics.com.

The past two years have been challenging for the Lee family, but Suni said, “On the anniversary [of the accident], I texted him and said, ‘Dad, I’m so proud of how far you’ve come and that you’ve come back so strong,'” she told The New York Times. “He is still in a wheelchair, but he can use his hands and he is getting better every day.”

While Suni’s friends and family could not attend the 2021 Olympics in person due to COVID-19 restrictions, they cheered her on during a watch party in Minnesota. “Even though we can’t go and support her in-person, I’m glad that we could share with the world,” John told local news outlet WCCO. “We’re just all so happy, we cheered her on. We had the full house so we were pretty loud.”

Suni is now the fifth-straight American woman to take home the gold in the all-around competition.

“I am proud. The family’s proud. The community is very proud of her,” John noted.

Dads make a difference. Abortion advocates often ignore, belittle, and demonize fatherhood, but John’s example shows the irreplaceable role of men who love and care for their children, inspiring them to persevere.

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