Gymnast Sunisa Lee was the most memorable athlete for me in the recent Tokyo Olympics, bringing home a gold medal in the women’s all-around competition, a silver team medal and a bronze for her performance on the uneven bars.
The 18-year-old, who had just graduated from high school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was the first Hmong-American Olympian, and that community happily watched her televised performances in large groups at all hours of the day and night.
Sunisa’s parents are among the Hmong refugees who began coming to Minnesota in 1975, escaping from wars in their homeland of Laos. (A distinct ethnic group in that country, their ancient roots are in China.) More than 66,000 Hmong now live in the state, with the Twin Cities area being the home of the largest group in the U.S.
I was sad that celebrated gymnast Simone Biles was unable to compete in most of the events because of mental stress, but I can understand her anxiety: her aunt had just died; she felt “the weight of the world on her shoulders,” probably because so much was expected of her as a result of her previous outstanding performances; and she suffered from the “twisties,” a loss of awareness of where her body was in the air. I preferred for her to sit out the competition, rather than to be injured by a bad fall. But she was a faithful “audience” for her team members, cheering them on and congratulating their successes without her.
Simone happily earned the bronze medal for her performance on the balance beam, the last individual gymnastics competition. She had chosen to do a relatively easier dismount, which gave her a lower score than the two Chinese gymnasts who earned the gold and silver medals. But she was delighted with her success and isn’t sure what her future Olympic plans may be. She already ranks as the most decorated American gymnast of all time, with 25 medals at world championships and seven at Olympic competition.
Like fellow Olympian and tennis star Naomi Osaka, Simone emphasized that mental health is just as important as physical health for athletes. Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon and the French Open competitions earlier this year to address her mental issues. Other Olympians expressed their gratitude for Simone’s attention to mental health.
It was somewhat disconcerting to see the “Tokyo 2020” label everywhere, which sometimes made me wonder what year we were actually in. The Olympics were postponed in March of 2020 because of the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, and the 2021 event was like no other Olympics: there were no spectators, other than the athletes and their coaches; everyone wore masks except when competing, and medals were delivered to the winning athletes on trays, rather than placed around their necks.
Although the Japanese people were reluctant to host the games with the pandemic still affecting many in their country, the Olympic committee conducted them anyway, with many successful precautions to protect the athletes from around the world. Of the 11,656 athletes who participated, only a very small percentage contracted Covid-19. In addition to being tested every four days, there were many restrictions on visiting bars, restaurants and tourist shops.
Jade Carey of Arizona was another excellent U.S. gymnast who won the gold medal for her beautiful floor exercise. She was one of the few Olympians with a parent present, since her dad was her coach.
Another athlete who impressed me was Molly Seidel of Wisconsin, who earned a bronze medal in the women’s marathon, which was only the third one she’d ever run. I watched the final 15 minutes of the two hours, 27 minutes and 46 seconds it took her to complete the 40 kilometer (26.22 mile) course on a hot, humid morning in northern Japan. Although the marathon was begun at 6 a.m., the runners moved to run in any shade along their route and drank water frequently to stay hydrated.
As a fourth grader, Molly had written, “I wish I will go to the Olympics and win a gold medal.” She came close to achieving that dream — and after all, bronze is kind of a dark gold color.
Californians April Ross and Alix Klineman drew my attention to beach volleyball, with their competence in spiking the ball so their opponents rarely had a chance to return it. They earned a gold medal for their final win in another match on the hot sand.
I enjoyed watching Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history—and the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history—win bronze in the 400 meter competition and gold in the 4 x 400 meter relay. Those medals add to her nine other medals won at five Olympics, 2004-2020. The 35-year-old runner dedicated this year’s medals to her two-year-old daughter and is now retiring from Olympic competition.
Other track and field events, swimming and diving were also on my watch list, while grandchildren Ray and Ana especially enjoyed the soccer games, along with their dad Eric, a former soccer coach.
We’re all now missing getting to watch excellent athletes from around the world competing and breaking records for their performances. The good thing about the Olympics being postponed a year is that we only have to wait three years for the next games.