The unbreakable bond between star gymnast Suni Lee and her father warmed hearts across the world when Lee fulfilled their longtime dream and took home gold in the Tokyo Olympics.
Lee’s superstar teammate, Simone Biles, was there to witness the emotional moment on TODAY, when Lee, 18, draped the gold medal around John’s neck as she reunited with her family for the first time since winning the Olympic individual all-around title.
Their story inspired Biles to team up with TODAY for a heartwarming surprise for John on Wednesday. John has been using a manual wheelchair since an accident left him paralyzed from the chest down two years ago, so Biles enlisted the help of TODAY to give him an upgrade that should make getting around a little easier.
“Hi, Mr. Lee, it’s Simone. I love your daughter, Suni, so much and I know how much she loves you,” Biles said to him in a video message on TODAY. “You have done so much for her so I reached out to my friends at the TODAY show to see if we could do something special for you. Hope you like it.”
John was surprised with an electric wheelchair from Quantum Rehab that will be fitted specially for him.
“Oh, my God,” he said in surprise and tears in his eyes. “Oh my, that is awesome.”
John said that Suni’s brother, Lucky, has often been his “driver,” pushing his wheelchair when they are traveling, but the new chair will allow him to get around more on his own.
“It’ll be a little different because now they don’t have to keep pushing me around,” he told Natalie Morales.
During the Olympics, the Lee family became a sensation as they gathered with a large group of fans from their Hmong American community in Minnesota to cheer her on from home while she was competing. Lee is the first Hmong American gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and earn a medal.
John also expressed his gratitude to Biles in the aftermath of his daughter’s win. When the defending Olympic champion decided not to participate in the women’s individual all-around competition, citing her mental health, Suni took advantage of her time to shine and brought home the gold.
“I want to tell her team that no matter what, you all support her, and I want to tell Simone that she truly is the GOAT because she let my baby girl bring the gold medal,” John said on TODAY following his daughter’s victory.
John was injured in 2019 when he was helping a friend trim a tree for his daughter’s wedding and fell off a ladder, suffering a spinal cord injury just two days before Suni was set to compete at the U.S. Championships.
“I’m very handy when it comes to doing stuff, so even knowing how to do stuff, I can’t do it,” he said about the change in his life. “And I get kind of frustrated.”
One of John’s handiworks is a balance beam he built for Suni to practice on as a child. It still stands in the backyard of their Minnesota home as a symbol of her hard work and her close bond with her father.
“I always believed in her,” he said. “I always trusted she’d do well.”
Now he’s like any other father missing his daughter now that she’s off to college as a freshman. Suni had a short break after Tokyo and is now a student at Auburn University.
“She’s very busy,” John said before laughing. “I have very minimum communication with her right now.”
What he does have is a brand new customized chair that will be delivered to him soon. He told Morales he can’t wait to take it to the local grocery store without having to worry about carrying his groceries while trying to push himself in his wheelchair.
“Well, this is amazing,” he said. “Thank you, guys!”