Today, Suni calls me on her way from gymnastics practice to rehearsals for Dancing With the Stars, a last-minute opportunity that moved her out of her freshman dorm at Auburn University in Alabama after two weeks on campus. It’s been eight weeks since she got back from Tokyo, and she has yet to have a moment of peace. She’s driving herself around LA — offering some much-needed alone time — as she begins to explain exactly how she’s juggling gymnastics practice, a hit dance competition series, schoolwork, and public appearances . . . all while living in a new city as a teenager who just made history.
Suni might appear shy and soft-spoken, but below the surface, she’s more self-aware than most adults I know. She admits it’s not easy. She’s overwhelmed. “I’m only 18, living in LA, and I have all of these expectations on me,” she says. “On top of that, I put a lot of pressure on myself, so it’s kind of scary.”
Suni had been laser-focused on a single goal for the past 12 years: winning Olympic gold. It’s an accomplishment she’s worked toward since she was 6 years old, doing flips on the makeshift beam her dad built in their backyard. And she undoubtedly has more medals in her future. But when you achieve your lifelong goal at 18, how do you navigate your next move?
“Nobody expected me to win the gold medal, so when I did, my life turned overnight,” she says. After fellow Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team finals in Tokyo to prioritize her mental health, Suni took her place on the floor. At that moment, she learned that when she needed to, she could step up to the plate and bring her best. She’s being humble, apparently — Jess Graba, her longtime coach and owner of Midwest Gymnastics, wasn’t one bit surprised. “The Suni I see every day in practice, that was her,” he tells me. Despite strict COVID guidelines, family hardships, and no spectators in the crowd to cheer her on, Suni went on to take home three medals for Team USA.
While Suni may have shocked the world and perhaps even herself, she’s always had the support of both her biological and chosen family, which includes members of her Hmong community in St. Paul. Sports aren’t conventional career paths in Hmong American communities or immigrant households, but young Suni set off on an untraditional journey thanks to her parents, Yeev Thoj and John Lee, who “cherished” her and her siblings’ love for sports. “I know that there’s a standard that Hmong girls have to live up to,” Suni says, and she’s proud of leading the way in carving out a different path for herself. “You don’t really see a Hmong athlete, a girl, doing what she does,” Suni’s sister Shyenne Lee shares, adding that so many are inspired by how she’s let the world know who they are as a community.
When Suni’s dad, John, first met Yeev and 2-year-old Suni, he had two kids, Jonah and Shyenne, from a previous relationship. John and Yeev later added to their blended household with Suni’s half-siblings Evionn, Lucky, and Noah. Originally born Sunisa Phabsomphou, Suni adopted John’s last name as a teenager as the two developed a special relationship through their shared passion for gymnastics. John was by her side at every single competition, so much so that she superstitiously determined that a premeet pep talk and hug with her dad would “instantly” help her compete better.
That made her father’s injury in 2019 all the more difficult. Days before the national championships, John fell off a ladder and became paralyzed from the chest down. It broke Suni’s heart to see her dad using a wheelchair, in pain, unable to return to his active lifestyle. But John didn’t let that stop her from giving up their dream. He was the one who insisted she go to the championships. The pep talks continued, now over FaceTime.
Suni’s support system is solid, but elite gymnastics is ultimately a solo game, and the training that’s required is purely independent. The strain of practicing alone every single day — as the only elite at her local gym, and after multiple pandemic postponements — found Suni thinking about quitting just days before the Olympic Trials, during what she describes as “the hardest week of [her] life.”
She thrives as a team player and relies on that bond to carry her to success. Sisterhood is what fueled her at the Tokyo Olympics and gave her the strength to step up for her team. Suni explains that this special bond between the women on Team USA was necessary. “Otherwise, we were not going to be able to pull it together.”
“When Simone had to step down, it was really sad and hard for all of us,” Suni’s fellow national teammate Jade Carey tells me. “But I really saw Suni step up. We all stepped up, but Suni just knew that she had to do it . . . she’s a fierce competitor.”
It’s much like the trust she shares with her sister Shyenne, a dancer whom Suni’s coaches enlisted for assistance in choreographing her floor routine for the Olympics — the very routine that helped Suni take home the gold. Shyenne had been helping out at Suni’s gym, Midwest Gymnastics, training toddlers and working with younger gymnasts on their floor routines, when the coaches noticed her potential to help Suni loosen up. “They knew I could let go and be free with her,” Suni says. It’s clear their relationship is a special one. “Suni, she’s my other half,” Shyenne tells me. “I don’t really know how to explain it, but we always joke about how we’re each other’s soulmates. You know, we’re not blood sisters, but it’s like we were meant to meet each other.”
That kinship is also the connection Suni looks forward to forming with her teammates on the Auburn Tigers. Everything is serious in elite, she explains, so she just wants to get out on the mat and have fun with her team. “It’s a whole new experience,” she says. “We get to build that bond and just do what we love.”
For Suni, doing what she loves now comes with the responsibility of the spotlight. She’d been one to watch long before Tokyo, but her Olympic run — and subsequent DWTS debut — catapulted her into a level of fame she wasn’t prepared to face.
“All eyes are going to be on not only me, but my whole college team,” Suni says, noting that the Auburn Arena had already sold out of tickets for its upcoming gymnastics season. It’s one thing to confront pressure as a gymnast and another to handle the stardom that comes with becoming a public figure.
From attending her first Met Gala to landing appearances on dream talk shows, she’s grateful for the amazing experiences. Yet with all the noise — the pressure from both herself and the people around her — she’s struggling to revel in the moment. “I’m getting too caught up in my head that it’s taking away the joy from the experience,” Suni says. “I’m surrounded by people every day, and sometimes, I like to just be alone. I haven’t really had a day to just chill and do nothing.” She only begins to peel back the reality of young Olympians who’ve become celebrities overnight.
“She doesn’t want to be rich. She doesn’t want to be famous. She just wanted to go to the Olympics,” says Jess, who’s trained with Suni since she was 7 years old. He treats Suni like his own child, his oldest daughter. He booked the first flight out to LA when Suni called him crying after a particularly overwhelming day a few weeks prior. And he was the one she called following a distressing encounter motivated by racist bigotry.
Suni’s accomplishments don’t make her immune to the painful and dangerous realities of anti-Asian hate in America. With the rate of unprovoked violence against Asian Americans fueled by COVID-19 misinformation continuing to climb across the nation, she tells me she found herself facing a racist attack a week before our conversation. While waiting for an Uber after a night out with her girlfriends, who are all of Asian descent, they were startled by a group speeding by in a car yelling racist slurs like “ching chong” and insisting they “go back to where they came from.” One passenger, Suni says, sprayed her arm with pepper spray as the car sped off.
“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” she recalls. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen.” Having grown up in a tight-knit community full of Hmong Americans like herself, she struggles to wrap her head around these hateful crimes. It’s difficult to speak up about uncomfortable topics like racial injustice, especially at her age, but she knows that using her voice makes a difference.
As she continues to carve out a path for her next move, like any 18-year-old, exploring her independence is at the forefront. College was always part of Suni’s plan. She committed to Auburn, where Jess’s twin brother, Jeff Graba, heads the gymnastics team, over four years ago. And her Olympics success hasn’t changed that decision. Suni is admittedly not big on academics, but she’s itching for a “normal” college experience.
“I lost my whole childhood to gymnastics,” she says, recalling a strict schedule devoid of football games and high school parties. “Since I sacrificed all of that, I wanted to have the college experience and get what I couldn’t have [in high school] . . . I wanted to be treated normal.” But when DWTS called with an opportunity to compete on its 30th season, she couldn’t pass it up.
Perhaps maintaining momentum was a factor, but what she really desired was to try something different. “I was doing gymnastics for, like, 12 years, and I feel like I never had time to just do anything fun,” Suni says. Luckily, the show has offered a sense of independence as it’s forced her to embark on a new, albeit temporary, adventure in LA. “I really wanted to try and find myself on this show, because I feel like everything got taken away from me in gymnastics,” she explains.
Week after week, Suni has continued to come into her own — people like Shyenne and Jess, who’ve known her her whole life, can see it, and the average viewer, like me, can see it, too. “She finally gets to show some emotion, be herself, and discover who she is outside of gymnastics,” Shyenne says. While Suni’s smiling and dancing like a pro on screen, her taxing schedule still takes a toll on her mentally and physically. On the Nov. 1 episode of DWTS, Suni pushed through her Queen Week performance despite a serious bout with nausea. She admits that tending to her wellness has been difficult, but she’s learning to open up about her feelings and bandwidth. Days after the incident, she shared on Instagram that her mental health could be better.
“When I shared that I was feeling down, so many people reached out and either sent positive messages of encouragement or told me they were feeling similarly and not to feel alone,” she says. “It’s OK to feel down sometimes, but what I’ve realized is that it’s important to express your feelings and ask for help. In the past, I might have pushed on and not acknowledged the state of my mental health. But there’s so much power in owning your feelings. It’s not weakness, it’s actually taking control.”
That awareness alone exhibits a level of maturity that’s not common for most 18-year-olds. “Her life hasn’t stopped since the gold medal,” Jess says, yet she continues to show up.
When we approach the subject of what comes after DWTS, Suni is hesitant to give a definitive answer. Long-term goals are easy — she wants to go to another World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and, of course, another Olympics. But when it comes to everything in between, it’s still a work in progress, she says, confessing that she feels a little lost right now. Yet after spending much of her adolescence with a regimented plan of action, there’s beauty in her uncertainty as it’s coupled with the freedom and independence she’s always dreamed of.
It’s a refreshingly honest take from a young athlete. “I don’t know what to do with my life because I’ve never had nothing to work for,” she says. “I’m still trying to find that one thing that I really want.”
One thing she is sure about, however, is getting her signature lash extensions back on as soon as she wraps DWTS. The show requires heavy eye makeup that’s not so conducive to extensions, and her lashes are her thing.
It’s time for Suni to head into dance rehearsals, and I realize she’s been chatting with me from her car, sitting in a parking lot on Beverly Boulevard for the past half hour. She graciously tells me I’ve done her a favor by keeping her company. “There’s a group of paparazzi and people out there that I’m just avoiding,” she says.
It’s easy to forget the Olympic champion is just an 18-year-old from St. Paul. Lights and cameras weren’t a part of her dream, but all eyes are on her as she reclaims her life as a teenager, a college student, and an Olympian and launches into her next move.
Photographer: Jasper Soloff Videographer: Joe Miller
Style Director: Dana Avidan Cohn Stylist: Emma Sousa Hair: Irinel de León Makeup: Allan Avendaño Manicurist: Erin Moffett Creative Direction: Jae Payne Prop Stylist: Samantha Margherita Design: Patricia O’Connor, Becky Jiras Production: Cassie Doyle, Hannah Lee, Whitney Moore Post-Production: Jason Malizia, Lucy Lott
Editors: Jennifer Fields, Iyana Robertson, Lindsay Miller, Lisa Sugar Copy Editors: Mary White Talent Booker: Lindsay Miller
Look 1: Top and Shorts: Carolina Herrera, Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti, Ear Cuffs: Melinda Maria, Jennifer Fisher, Ring: Jennifer Fisher; Look 2: Top: Alexander McQueen, Pants: Hervé Léger, Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti, Necklaces: Melinda Maria; Look 3: Dress: Tomo Koizumi x Emilio Pucci, Jewelry: Melinda Maria; Look 4: Blazer, Bodysuit, Shorts: Brandon Maxwell, Shoes: Nike, Earrings: Jennifer Fisher, Rings: Acchitto
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