When can silver be gold? When you're Sunisa Lee, who's much more than just Simone Biles' teammate

TOKYO — In 2016, just before the individual floor competition at the Rio Olympics, American gymnast Laurie Hernandez turned to her teammate, Aly Raisman, and laid out the stakes.

“If you get silver, you’re the best,” Hernandez said. “Because Simone doesn’t count.”

Raisman laughed and agreed. Olympic gold medals go to the best in the world, but Simone Biles’ performances are often not of this world. Sometimes, for sanity’s sake, you just have to rationalize that second-best is best.

“We just don’t consider ourselves competing against her,” Raisman said. “It’s like she’s just on another level.”

Biles walked into the Ariake Gymnastics Centre here Wednesday for podium training — or a final pre-Olympics practice — on another level (or 10) from even the last Olympics.

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The expected degree of difficulties in her routines make her virtually unbeatable in most events, even if she were to stumble. And she rarely stumbles.

The 23-year-old is the heavy favorite to win five gold medals here: all-around, floor, beam and vault, plus by leading the United States to a team title. Only on bars will she struggle to medal.

This is the Simone Biles show. No one disputes that.

Which leaves 18-year-old Sunisa Lee of St. Paul, Minnesota, playing the Raisman role this time around — the gymnast who might otherwise be the star of this competition.

In any other Olympics, Sunisa Lee would be a favorite to win all-around gold in women's gymnastics. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
In any other Olympics, Sunisa Lee would be a favorite to win all-around gold in women's gymnastics. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Lee is a popular pick to walk away with silver in the all-around competition, which would crown her as the second-best — and best not named Simone Biles — in the world. She’s also a favorite to take gold in bars, where she is a two-time U.S. champion. Lee actually bested Biles in the all-around competition on the second day of June’s U.S. trials — in part because of two falls by Simone.

That isn’t likely to duplicate itself here, but Lee will take the rare accomplishment.

“I think that gives me a lot of confidence,” Lee said. “I know it probably won’t happen again … but I was really excited.”

Here at podium training she looked ready, even as almost all eyes were on Biles. Despite the gym being mostly empty, and this serving as a somewhat low-key practice session, Biles produced oohhs and ahhhs from rival coaches, gymnasts, officials and even stadium workers. Lee could work outside the spotlight.

Her gymnastics career began at age 6, when she enrolled in a class at the Midwest Training Center near her home in St. Paul. She immediately turned heads.

“As soon as she came to the gym it was pretty evident she was special,” said Jeff Graba, who founded the gym with his brother but is now the head coach at Auburn University, where Lee will attend and compete in the fall. “In our sport, you can tell. Strength-to-weight ratio. Flexibility. She had the whole package.”

The only question would be the immeasurables. Gymnastics is a relentless sport. Endless practices. Injuries. Attention to details. Small gains. Setbacks. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

Heart, she has. Plenty of it.

Lee is one of five siblings from a Hmong American family. The Hmongs are an ethic group from Southeast Asia who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. When that war was lost, they had no land or nation to call home.

Many fled to Thailand as refugees before immigrating to the United States. Here they've tried to build lives in a country they once fought for, only to struggle to find acceptance, let alone recognition.

The largest population is in the Twin Cities. Yet even all these decades later, the Hmongs are misunderstood and often discriminated against.

“People hate on us for no reason,” Lee told Elle Magazine earlier this year. “It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say. I don’t know how to explain that.”

Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed
Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed

This is not just a chance to represent America and the Hmong and have their intertwined stories spread through the media, particularly on NBC, where gymnastics is expected to deliver huge ratings. By the end of these Olympics, she may be the most famous Hmong athlete ever.

Or as Lee’s father, John, told Elle: “It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever. It’ll go down in history.”

So, heart? Yeah, no problem.

“With any young gymnast, what you wonder is, emotionally, is she willing to work hard?” Graba explained. “Is she dedicated? Is she focused? Does she have this immense work ethic, this drive?

“She had it naturally,” Graba continued. “She just had it. And then the intangibles. She has always been fearless, extremely courageous in her gymnastics. Her competitive spirit is second to none.”

It’s led her here to Tokyo, where what she lacks in hype she makes up for in ability.

In non-Simone times, one of the stories heading into this competition would be a battle for all-around gold between Lee and a pair of Russians: Angeline Melnikova, a Russian who took silver at the 2019 World Championships, and Viktoria Listunova, the 2021 European champion.

Instead it’s about trying to maximize Lee's performance, making her community and country proud and while conceding nothing, understanding the lesson the great Aly Raisman learned last time.

In the Simone Biles Era, silver can be gold.

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