American Sunisa Lee became the new Olympic women’s all-around champion Thursday, following the stunning departure of her fellow Team USA teammate from the competition.
Lee scored 57.433 to finish ahead of Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who got second-place, and Russia’s Angelina Melnikova, who got third.
Her victory extended the United States’ domination of the all-around event following Olympic gold medal champions Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012, and Simone Biles in 2016.
“Coming into this competition I didn’t even think I could be competing for a gold medal,” Lee said afterward. “I was competing for a silver medal.”
The 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, provided a 13.700 to hold off the remainder of the field. “It doesn’t feel like real life,” Lee said. “I haven’t even let it sink in yet.”
But after Biles departed the competition after citing pressure and an inability to focus during her routines. She also decided to step down from the American team competition and was replaced by teammate Jade Carey.
Before the medal ceremony, Lee—who was born to Hmong immigrants from Laos—said she called her family. The Hmong people are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War, with many fleeing to the United States as refugees in recent decades.
“We were all just crying on the phone,” Lee said. “It was very, very surreal moment. I am super proud of them. My parents are just the most amazing people in my life. I love them so much.”
Twenty-four-year-old Biles, the winner of every all-around competition she entered since 2013, threw the fight for the Olympic gold wide open when she decided not to defend her Rio Games all-around title.
She had already dropped out of the team event on Tuesday after one poor vault, citing the need to focus on her mental health.
“Going into this meet I feel like there was a lot of pressure on me because I have been second to her (Biles) the whole season basically,” said Lee. “So I knew that people were kind of counting on me to either get second or win the gold medal. I tried not to focus on that because I knew that I would get too nervous.”
As the marks flashed on the scoreboard and Lee’s victory was confirmed, her teammates in the stands leapt and cheered.
“It just means a lot to me to have all of them here cheering for me,” said Lee. “It sucks that I can’t have Simone on the floor with me but just to even have her in the arena was very helpful because she is an inspiration to me that I look up to. Having her there helped me a lot.”
Reuters contributed to this report.