This is the part where we normally would describe her routines, where the flips and twists she executed not just at the Tokyo Games but on a global stage, are dissected and praised. But this is not normal, and here’s what matters more than a cleanly executed vault or a stirring floor routine: She wanted to be here. She did this on her own accord.
“It doesn’t even feel like real life,” Lee said, smiling.
It would be easy to say it’s a shame that Lee’s gold — the fifth straight all-around title for American women at the Olympics — will be defined not by her performance but by Simone Biles’s absence. But the reality is Biles’s withdrawal from the all-around competition — a competition she won with ease five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, a competition she wins with ease any time she competes — provided more than Lee’s gold. It provided Olympic athletes — not to mention the entire world — with an opportunity to reassess priorities.
That’s more important and impressive than any medal issued over the course of these Games. Biles withdrew — first from Tuesday’s team competition, then from Thursday’s all-around — because she was no longer having fun and that was messing with her head, which in turn paralyzed her body. It was her choice and hers alone. That is empowering and will have a much more lasting impact than any more medals would.
Sound silly? Think back to a time when American gymnasts didn’t make their own decisions. First, they weren’t old enough — and that was by design. Second, they were manipulated by their former coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, who took prepubescent girls and beat them into the ground.
“They kicked you out when you started to get an opinion and you became a young woman where you could think for yourself and give some pushback,” Dominique Moceanu, a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 1996 Olympics, told my colleague Emily Giambalvo before these Games. “They didn’t like that.”
Think about the defining moment of Moceanu’s Olympics. In the team competition, fellow American Kerri Strug landed awkwardly after a vault, injuring her ankle. The U.S. team thought it needed a second, solid vault from Strug, limping badly, to secure gold. There was Bela Karolyi, with the psychological gun to her head.
“You can do it,” he said. “You better do it.”
That’s not coaching or cajoling. That’s a threat. Twenty-five years later, the entire episode rings differently. Biles’s decision only makes that clearer.
The horror in U.S. gymnastics rightly focuses on Larry Nassar, the monster of a team doctor who sexually abused so many of them, including Biles. Biles has said she stayed on for another Olympic cycle not just to pursue more golds — she won four in Rio — but to make sure there was a forward-facing, pertinent figure reminding the public of the horror Nassar wrought and the gymnasts’ utter abandonment and betrayal by its governing body. Consider that weight.
So the question will come to Lee: Stick around for the Paris Olympics, just three years away? It’s actually not important whether she does or she doesn’t. It’s more important that she looks at what Biles went through and that the decision be hers.
“We’ll see,” said her coach, Jess Graba. “She needs some time to relax and have some fun. I do think she’ll entertain the idea. … This is such a hard road that it’s going to take you a while to forget how hard it is.”
Lee’s road, too, was harder than most, filled with potholes. In the days leading up to the 2019 national championships, her father, John, fell off a ladder in their hometown of St. Paul, Minn. He was initially paralyzed from the chest down. He remains in a wheelchair.
Throw in covid, the extra year of training, naked racism against Asian Americans — all the difficulties and tragedies the world has endured over the past year-and-a-half — and she had her moments that mirrored what Biles endured here.
“There was a point in time where I wanted to quit,” Lee said. “And I just didn’t think I would ever get here.”
But she did. And she delivered despite the fact that she was competing on legs that were so beat up — a left foot still recovering from a fracture — that she removed a tumbling pass from the floor routine that clinched the gold.
“Without that much pain, there’s not that much pleasure,” Graba said. “I think it’s more rewarding now because of what she had to go through — everything we had to fight, everything she’s had to overcome.”
That’s how athletic achievements long have been viewed: Champions face adversity and overcome it and the greater the challenge, the larger their heart. There was merit in that when Strug pulled off her vault on her ailing leg, even if Karolyi’s role in making her do it was revolting.
Yet it’s possible to believe, simultaneously, that there are championship qualities in taking care of yourself, even if that means withdrawing. At the Tokyo Olympics, Biles excelled at self-care and projecting that message. Lee excelled at seizing an opportunity. Cheer for them both.
Lee made America proud by pushing forward. Biles should make America proud by stepping back. They both can be models of how to comport yourself because the decision to compete and the decision to stop belonged to them. That’s progress.