"I want to do it for my family and coaches obviously, but I also want to do it for myself. I've just been through so much," Sunisa Lee told PEOPLE about representing Team USA in Tokyo

By Karen Mizoguchi
July 10, 2021 11:00 AM
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Team USA
Credit: Team USA

At age 18, Sunisa Lee achieved one of her biggest dreams: becoming an Olympian.

Before securing her spot at the June trials, the gymnast from Minneapolis prepped how she usually would by speaking with her father John, who has been her biggest supporter and inspiration since day one.

"[He tells me] to go out there and do my best and to just do what I do," Lee told PEOPLE in a previous interview about her special pep talks with her dad, who in August 2019 became paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a ladder while helping a neighbor trim a tree. While recovering in the hospital, John watched his daughter's competitions on TV.

2020 would also be a trying year for the Lee family. In addition to a foot injury and not being able to train regularly at her gym, the athlete's aunt and uncle died from COVID-19.

Explaining why being an Olympian means "the world for me," Lee shared, "I want to do it for my family and coaches obviously, but I also want to do it for myself. I've just been through so much."

Team USA
Credit: Team USA

At last month's gymnastics trials in St. Louis, Lee placed second behind Simone Biles and punched her ticket to Tokyo along with team members Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum (individual spots went to Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner).

The trials were particularly meaningful for her family, because — due to COVID — it was among the few times this year that they were able to watch her compete in person. And it was also the last time, as the Tokyo Olympics have barred international spectators from attending.

"It's really hard because it's been all of our dreams and for them to not even be able to go to the Olympics and watch is something that is so heartbreaking. But I think they're going to have a little watch party," Lee said of her loved ones in St. Paul and across the U.S.

Ahead of the Games, Lee has already made history by becoming the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast — a title she knows "means a lot to the Hmong community ... and to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too."

Gymnast Suni Lee
Credit: Harry How/Getty

Expect Lee to dominate in the all-around, specifically the uneven bars and beam, which she calls her favorite event.

"I focus more on bars and beam just because those are my strongest events, and I just try and maintain whatever I can do on floor and vault. I'm consistently training on all events," Lee told PEOPLE. "It's just I spend more time on bars and beam. I obviously want to perfect those and get those to be the best that I can be because those are going to be my strongest events and the two events that I could contribute to the team."

For Lee, representing her family and Team USA has more significance than ever before, especially after everything she has endured in the past two years.

"Now looking back, I think it's helped me a lot mentally and physically," she said of the Games' year-long postponement. "Mentally it's helped me because I had to take that little break from gymnastics, which is obviously hard, but it was something that needed to be done. Right now, mentally it's helped because it makes me want this even more."

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23rd on NBC.