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Suni Lee, Caeleb Dressel named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Year

“I just want to say thank you to the Hmong community, my parents, my sister who is in the crowd with me, my coaches as well. I’m so thankful for this,” Suni Lee said in her speech.
Image: Sunisa Lee
Sunisa Lee competes in the artistic gymnastics women's balance beam final of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Aug. 3.Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images file

Olympic gold medalists Suni Lee and Caeleb Dressel were each named Athlete of the Year at this year’s Sports Illustrated Awards.

The show, hosted by DJ Khaled and sportscaster Cari Champion, honored one male and one female athlete with the award Tuesday night.

“There’re two athletes who also entered in the national spotlight, putting themselves and their stories out there into the world to inspire other athletes while representing our country on the largest stage in the world, the Olympics,” NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, of the Miami Dolphins, said before announcing the winners.

Lee, a three-medal gymnast and the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics, won Female Athlete of the Year.

During her acceptance speech, the 18-year-old admitted she almost quit gymnastics before the Olympics.

“It was just really hard for me to 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.”

Lee’s parents have been supportive of her interest in gymnastics since she was a child. Her father, John Lee, told NBC's "TODAY" show he even built her a balance beam when they could not afford one.

“I just want to say thank you to the Hmong community, my parents, my sister who is in the crowd with me, my coaches as well. I’m so thankful for this,” she said in her speech.

Lee, who is a first-generation Hmong American, has spoken about her connection with her culture and community. In an interview with People magazine in July, she said becoming the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast “means a lot to the Hmong community ... and to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too.”

Last month, Lee told PopSugar she had been a victim of anti-Asian violence. She said a car drove by with people in it shouting racial slurs at Lee and her friends, and one person pepper-sprayed her arm as the car drove off.

Dressel, who left the Tokyo Olympics with five gold medals and having broken his own world record in the 100-meter butterfly, won Male Athlete of the Year. He is only one of five swimmers to win at least five medals at one Olympic Games.

In his speech, the 25-year-old and two-time Olympian said the award was an honor before recounting his frustration after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

“I was pretty much training for months and months with no guarantee of having a pool at the end of the summer,” he said, but he thanked his coach, Gregg Troy, for his guidance during the time.