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Gymnast Suni Lee’s dad couldn't afford a balance beam, so he built her one

The beam is still in the backyard today.
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John Lee said he has always seen greatness in his daughter, gymnast Sunisa “Suni” Lee.

He says his instincts were proven true when his daughter qualified to represent Team USA, making history as the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics. Representing the country, the 18-year-old gymnast won gold Thursday in the women's individual all-around gymnastics final.

Suni's interest in gymnastics has been encouraged from a young age, John told the “TODAY” show, saying he even built her a wooden beam that still remains in their backyard.

"She goes to the gym and she practices but we don't have a beam here. So I couldn't afford a real beam, so I built her one."

John was in the stands watching Suni as she secured her spot for the Tokyo Olympics in June after she placed second, just behind Simone Biles, at the Olympic Trials.

It was especially emotional for him as it was one of the few times he has been able to see his daughter compete in person since a 2019 accident. Two days before Suni competed at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships in August that year, John fell off a ladder while helping a neighbor trim a tree and was paralyzed from the chest down.

Afterward, Suni considered skipping the championships but her father pushed her to continue to fight for her dreams, according to ESPN. 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. Suni went on to take gold on uneven bars and earned second place in the all-around behind Biles.

As for his health, John said he is slowly learning how to move.

“My hands are getting stronger. My balance is not so great, but I’m learning how to cope with that,” he said.

And now with Suni representing Team USA, John shared how he feels about his daughter’s achievements.

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

Suni described her Hmong community as “really close” in May in an interview with her father for Elle magazine before she qualified for the Olympics, saying that more than 300 attend her family’s annual camping trip. It’s also common at Hmong events for people to come up to her to ask for photos, support she said she finds “amazing.”

The gymnast said she struggled with the difficult past year during a rise in anti-Asian hate, wondering why “people hate on us for no reason.”

“It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say,” she said.

John told "TODAY" that before his accident, he always told his daughter that if she got into the Olympics, he would “run out there and do a backflip.”

“But I can’t do it now,” he joked.

When asked about his secret to raising an Olympian, he says, it’s all Suni.

“I talk to her, I motivate her but the real secret is, I think it’s her,” he said. “I think she’s pretty natural.”

And though Covid-19 restrictions halted plans to watch her perform in person, Suni’s family will be proudly watching from their Minnesota home.

“As I watch her, I’ll be thinking, ‘If she brings home a couple of medals, hopefully a couple of gold, I mean, that would be so great for the family, the community, and for USA’,” John said.

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