In stepping back, Simone Biles has ushered in a global conversation about the pressures that come with the athletic prowess, about the stresses placed on teenagers and 20-somethings with the world watching.
In a much smaller way, she also has ushered in a free-for-all for the remaining all-around gymnasts, who now have a shot at a gold that she has left unclaimed.
If the United States wants the medal that Biles is no longer defending, Sunisa “Suni” Lee is the best bet to replace her on the medal stand after Jade Carey replaced Biles on the U.S, team.
Suni, an 18-year-old born in St. Paul, Minn., to parents of Hmong descent, already has been a breakout star of the Japan Olympics after lifting the Biles-less Americans to a silver medal in the team competition this week, and now will be among the favorites of a leader-less field in the all-around finals Thursday morning.
“With Simone in the mix, everyone was basically lobbying or fighting for silver,” Punnarith Koy, who first began coaching Suni when she was 6, said over the phone Wednesday. “But now it’s wide open, and Suni is definitely in the top-three conversation.”
Koy has watched Suni grow from a boisterous, humble 6-year-old who showed up at Midwest Gymnastics into the next great gymnastics hope for the United States.
He recognized the natural dynamism and balance she had immediately, even if the little girl didn’t know any of the terminology. He watched as 9-year-old Suni executed, on the high beam, a front aerial to back handspring stepout — the same type of move that helped Gabby Douglas win gold in London in 2012.
“She had that really quick-twitch good power,” said Koy, who still coaches at the gym. “That just came naturally. And she has this fearlessness about her.”
That mentality is how Koy believes Suni separated and separates herself. When she was growing, she would finish her workouts quickly, which allowed the coaches to throw more at her, to test upgrades on flips, to zoom through more tumbles as others were stuck on the first workout.
As gymnasts grow and climb the levels, Koy said, “they realize this is a lot of work.” Some drop off, and Suni, who will be attending Auburn, rose up.
Koy credits her drive to her parents, whose families emigrated from Laos. Her father, John Lee, was paralyzed by a fall off a ladder in 2019 just days before Suni had a national championship meet. After his encouragement, she attended and performed anyway, winning gold in the uneven bars and silver in the all-around, only falling to superhuman Biles.
In these Olympics, she finished third in qualifying for the all-around, behind Biles and Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova, both from Russia, also will be contenders.
But there is no front-runner in the event that combines the difficulty score and execution scores from the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise.
In terms of difficulty, though, only Biles’ preliminaries were harder to pull off. If Suni can execute an at-times literal high-wire act, the gold would be hers.
“It’s just a matter of who makes mistakes,” Koy said.
In a news conference this week, Suni said the preliminaries for the uneven bars, her specialty, were the “most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Biles, who is focusing on her mental health, has felt that heat, too. Yet she was there right beside her teammate, even chiming in on questions posed to Suni.
Biles is there to help, But she is not there to compete in the all-around anymore, which has opened a void that Suni could fill.