The following content is presented by Nissan. It does not reflect the work or opinions of the NBC stations news staff. Click here to learn more about Nissan.
In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail.
For any athlete competing in Tokyo, the journey to becoming an Olympic hero is already an uphill one. There are big expenses, massive time commitments, injuries, and the need to keep their heads in the game. And, of course, they must keep winning, over and over.
Layer onto that the harsh personal adversity some athletes have had to overcome. This was the case for two members of the USA Women’s Gymnastics team, both first-time Olympians. Sunisa “Suni” Lee, heading to Auburn University, had to deal with illness and losing family members during the pandemic; Jordan Chiles, heading to the University of California, Los Angeles, had to push through doubts that the sport no longer had a place for her.
Lee, after team star Simone Biles, is thought to be the best gymnast. In fact, Lee may be the Women's team greatest hope, since Biles had to pull out of tonight's finals due to a "medical issue." On night two of the Olympic trials, Lee actually achieved the top all-around score, after a few errors from Biles, and finished second overall. Before these games, Lee shared a team gold win at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships along with an individual silver win for floor exercise and a bronze for uneven bars. She’s also considered to have the most difficult uneven bars routine in the world, starting with a 6.7 difficulty score.
Still, reaching this top level meant climbing past a high degree of personal challenges. Physically, she had to recover from two different injuries. Last year, she broke a bone in her left foot coming down off the bars, putting her out of commission for about two months. Soon after, her left Achilles gave out, requiring yet another two-month pause.
Then there were the family setbacks. Just days before heading to her first senior U.S. championships in 2019, her dad, John, suffered serious injuries falling off a ladder. The following year, she lost relatives to COVID-19.
Still, nothing stopped her. Just days after her father’s injury, Lee prevailed, competing in the 2019 championships and still coming in second, only to Biles. Of her father, Lee says, “He’s inspired me so much. Whenever I look at him, I just kind of make myself do better.” (Her father's condition has since improved.)
Chiles, too, has won acclaim. At the 2018 Pacific Rim Championships, the now 20-year-old native of Vancouver, Washington won gold for team, vault, and floor competitions and bronze for the balance beam. During the Olympic trials, Chiles landed in third. In one sense, Chiles was destined to see the Olympic stage. Too young to compete at the 2016 Olympics, Chiles watched trials from the stands at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. “I was crying in my seat,” Chiles told NBC Sports. She left the arena asking, “When is it my turn?”
All this achievement came even though Chiles nearly quit the sport a few years back. Not chosen for the World Championship team in 2018, Chiles faced a crisis of confidence. But with family encouragement and a couple changes (a new coach and a move to a training center in Spring Texas), Chiles got her mojo back. And cheerleading from her training mate, Simone Biles, didn’t hurt either.
Chiles, though, is now facing family hardship. Her mother, Gina, has been convicted of wire fraud and has been sentenced to jailtime. Gina’s 366-day prison sentence, in fact, had been set to start today. A U.S. District Court in Oregon, though, granted a 30-day delay to allow her to support her daughter at the games.
Of course, what doesn’t break you only makes you stronger, they say. That may be evident tonight, as Lee and Chiles take their squad to the Women’s Team Final. The team itself looks fairly strong after consecutive gold medal wins in 2012 and 2016.
For sports excitement, turn to the Olympics. For driving thrills, click here to see what Nissan has to offer.
Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including the USA Women’s Gymnastics team final, tonight, Tuesday, at 8:00 p.m. ET.