Sunisa Lee
U.S. gymnast Suni Lee competes in floor exercise during the women’s all-around final. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Recreation & Sports

U.S. streak stays alive without Biles, as Sunisa Lee wins gymnastics all-around gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

The United States had taken Olympic gold in four straight women’s gymnastics all-arounds. All the talk had been about Simone Biles pulling out in the days leading up to it, but U.S. gymnast Suni Lee won the all-around gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, taking the lead after the third of four rotations.

A star was born at the women’s Olympic all-around gymnastics final on Thursday.

Sunisa Lee, an 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minn., won the all-around gold medal, taking the lead after the third of four rotations and cementing her hold with a strong performance in the floor exercise routine in her finale.

A standout on the uneven bars but versatile and compelling in every facet, Lee finished with 57.433 points. She was the first American of Hmong heritage to make the U.S. Olympic team.

Lee is the fifth straight American woman to win all-around gold, a streak begun by Carly Patterson in 2004 and continued by Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Simone Biles in 2016.

Rebeca Andrade of Brazil stepped out of bounds twice during the floor exercise routine in her finale, ending her chances of overtaking Lee. Andrade finished second, with 57.298 points. Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee — which won the women’s team title on Tuesday — took the bronze medal with 57.199 points at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.

USA's Sunisa Lee reacts to winning the gold medal in the women's gymnastic's individual all-around final.
USA’s Sunisa Lee reacts to winning the gold medal in the women’s gymnastic’s individual all-around final. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Jade Carey of the U.S., who replaced Biles in the event after Biles withdrew to safeguard her mental health, finished eighth, with 54.199 points.

Biles watched from the stands with other members of the U.S. delegation on Thursday. She cheered not only for the Americans but for other competitors as well.

The first rotation for the top group was vault, where Carey’s Cheng vault was scored at 15.200. That placed her second behind Andrade’s score of 15.300. Melnikova was third (14.633) and Lee stood fourth at 14.600.

Lee continued her brilliance on the uneven bars, where she scored a 15.300 in the second rotation thanks in part to a high 6.8 difficulty score. Carey scored 13.500. After two rotations, Andrade still led, at 29.966, but Lee was at 29.900 in second and Melnikova was third at 29.533. Carey was sixth at 28.700.

Carey led off on balance beam but she endured a fall and scored only 11.533 points. Lee almost fell while executing a wolf turn, a move in which the gymnast crouches on one leg and rotates while extending the free leg. She saved it nicely and did the rest of her routine well, getting a score of 13.833. When Andrade got a 13.566, Lee took over the lead after three rotations. The gap from first to fourth was merely .500.

USA's Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars in the women's individual all-around final.
USA’s Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars in the women’s individual all-around final. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

For Carey, the chance to compete in the all-around final was unexpected. Thanks to a quirky change in regulations adopted by the international gymnastics federation, Carey had earned her Olympic berth as an individual rather than as a member of the four-woman U.S. team. She competed in the qualifying round but not in the team competition. Fueled by her outstanding scores on vault and floor exercise, the Phoenix resident earned the ninth-highest all-around score in qualifying. Biles got the top score and Lee ranked third. A rule that limits each country to two entries per event final initially kept Carey out of the 24-woman field for the all-around final.

Carey reached the final as the replacement for Biles, who withdrew from the all-around competition a day after she scratched from the team event. Biles said she was unable to sense where she was in the air when she did her vault in the team event, causing her to fear she’d incur a serious injury if she continued. She said she wanted to put her mental health ahead of her quest to add to the five medals she won at Rio in 2016.

“We want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher or anything,” Biles said after Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum had stepped up on short notice to finish the competition and earn team silver medals, behind the Russian Olympic Committee.

“After that vault I was, ‘I’m not in the right headspace. I’m not going to lose a medal for this country and these girls because they worked way too hard for me to go out there and have them lose a medal.’”

Biles also qualified for the event finals on each of the four apparatus — balance beam, uneven bars, floor exercise and vault — but she has not said if she will compete in those events. The uneven bars and vault finals will be contested on Sunday, floor exercise on Monday, and balance beam on Tuesday.

Carey also qualified for the vault and floor exercise finals, while Lee qualified for the uneven bars and balance beam finals. If Biles withdraws from the vault final she would be replaced by American MyKayla Skinner, who had the fourth-best vault in qualifying (behind Biles, Andrade and Carey) but was a victim of the two-per-country rule. Skinner’s score was higher than those of the three designated replacement athletes, so she would be allowed to replace Biles. All-around and vault are the only two events in which an American would be allowed to replace Biles if she opts out of the event finals.

Brooklyn Moors of Canada, an incoming UCLA freshman, finished 16th on Thursday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.