Teenage phenom Suni Lee, the first Asian American, first Hmong American to win an Olympic gold medal in the marquee gymnastics event—the all-around–was sitting on the Today Show couch in Tokyo on Tuesday this week.
Simone Biles had just finished her comeback performance and won bronze in the individual beam event. Lee, who competed too, was a disappointing fifth, even though she had one incredible misstep where she should have fallen off. Only the hands of the gymnastic gods, or perhaps an ancient Hmong shaman, kept her from falling off the beam about the width of an iPhone. A save worthy of gold. No one talked about it on the Today Show segment.
That meant the team interview was typical for the gymnasts—routinized perfection. You do hundreds of these. So there are no mess ups. No point deductions. Gymnasts stay on point better than a politician.
But in the end when they were all hungry, host Craig Melvin brought out some sushi, and Lee’s hungry Asian American eyes widened, ready to devour it all in a single breath. Only a gymnast’s decorum—always knowing that someone is judging– kept her from eating the whole platter on live TV. But she was also the only Asian American amongst her teammates. And they were more like, “Hmm, are those sprinkles or are they fish eggs?!”
Sitting next to Lee was Biles, who kept at arms-length and just said no. To sushi? Not for her. She was waiting for the pizza, the wings, Subway, anything else but salmon and roe (like the Olympic sport?), though I’d want to convince her to go vegan.
That was as candid a public moment as you’ll get from these young women, and it captured what these games have been all about.
A young 18-year-old Lee gets her chance to shine when Biles, the veteran Olympic champ, the greatest gymnast of all time, decides she cannot cross the abyss created by her own gymnastic anxiety. Her mind, her body were separate. Gymnasts, and now all the rest of us, know them as the “twisties.” It’s not when your leotard rides up funny. It’s when you can’t tell up from down, making gravity-defying aerial moves like Biles’ signature balance beam dismount known simply as “The Biles–a double twisting, double back somersault–impossible.
So just like the sushi, Biles said no, to it all. The judging. The gymnastics point system. The Olympics. And she started caring for herself.
In the meditation world, it’s called going metta—showing loving, kindness. When Biles declared last week she was withdrawing to get her “mindfulness right,” I understood.
By saying no to the biggest moment in her gymnastics career, she transformed before our eyes. Go ahead, make all the heart shapes you want with your cupped fingers and thumbs.
Simone Biles won the event she needed to win at these Olympics. The medal is bronze. But she won the gold for self-care.
She defeated the self-judgment and doubt. And then, in what could be her last Olympic event, she adjusted her routine, took out the “Biles,” and put in a move she hadn’t done since she was 12. And then she went out and did it for herself. To hell with judges and points.
Biles didn’t pull any punches. She gave us the punches she had now and won her 7th Olympic medal. But this one, she said, was worth more than all the others–for the chasm between mind and body she had to cross at these Olympics.
And then she began to talk about the importance of mental health.
“We’re not just entertainment,” Biles said. “We’re humans, and there are things going on behind the scenes that we’re also trying to juggle with as well.”
Consider the whole experience of being one of the victims of former Olympic team doctor Larry Nasser, the convicted sexual abuser, and you know there have to be issues greater than the uneven parallel bars.
Biles thought after withdrawing she’d feel a little embarrassed and ashamed. But then she said people came up to her and thanked her for speaking out. “In that moment, I was like, OK,” Biles told NBC. “There’s more than gymnastics and medals.”
So Tuesday was like a fun run. She took out the “twisties” and she did it for herself. “I didn’t really care about the outcome,” she said.
Biles had been a cheerleader for most of these games. But toward the end, she started telling her team not to do it for us, but to do it for yourself.
That’s what Suni Lee did.
SUNI LEE’S FUTURE
Lee had been second to Biles all gymnastics season. And when Biles withdrew from the early events in Tokyo, it was like Suni staring at that platter of sushi.
“So I felt like I was just doing this for myself,” she said. “And I just wanted to prove that I could be up there.”
Now Lee comes home with a medal in every color. A gold in the heralded all-around. A silver for team. A bronze in the bars. The bronze hurts since the bars were considered her genius, with her best bars form graphically demonstrated on page 1 of the New York Times earlier in the week.
She now blames it on being bombarded by social media. The Twitter “twisties”?
There could have been redemption on the final night in the individual beam event. That misstep, where she should have fallen off, cost her points. And like Biles, she had made the routine just good enough. But not enough to survive that misstep. At fifth place, she was just .133 points away from tying Biles for third. That wobble there, a more difficult choice there, less Twitter, who knows? It could have been a different moment for Lee. But there’s no competition.
We are in a time when some have noted the tension over Black/Asian relations. But Biles and Lee cheered each other on throughout. There was nothing but love and unity between the two. It’s all good when you realize we’re all on the same team.
In my last column, I talked about how Lee smashed our biggest Asian American stereotypes, the “Model Minority” and the “Perpetual Foreigner.”
The latter was tested during the beam.
Was there anyone in America who saw the two Chinese competitors Guan Chenchen (gold) and Tang Xijing (silver) and thought for a brief moment Suni Lee had cloned herself?
Asian Americans know the nuances of how different we look when standing next to a relative from Asia. You’d have to be totally unaware not to notice. But you know there had to be some Americans out there who are still “seen one, seen them all.”
Oh, there’s work to do.
In the end, it was a great games for Lee, who has to be considered the heir apparent to Biles who still may come back in four years. But unless some 16-year old literal whippersnapper emerges (she’d be 12 years old now), great things are ahead for the new Olympic all-around champ.
She just needs to remember the lessons from these games; To stay away from the “twisties” and the judgments of others—hard to do in a sport so judge-y as gymnastics. And when in doubt, to do the new “Biles,” to transform with self-care into the metta gymnast within, simply by being more kind and loving to oneself.
And that’s something we all can do.