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Suni Lee won gold for her community, her family and herself

Suni Lee was representing the United States when she won gold in the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final on Thursday — but after a challenging couple of years, she was especially motivated to win for her family, her Hmong community back home and herself.

“It feels super crazy, I definitely didn’t think I’d be here in this moment with the gold medal,” Lee said after her win. “I’m just super proud of myself for making it here because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit.”

The 18-year-old from Minnesota competed at the 2019 U.S. National Gymnastics Championships two days after her father, John Lee — her staunchest supporter — fell from a ladder and became paralyzed from the chest down.

Sunisa Lee of the United States competes in the balance beam event of the artistic gymnastics women’s all-around final during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 29, 2021.Loic Venance / AFP – Getty Images

She considered skipping the championships, but her father from the hospital encouraged her to continue. She told NBC’s “TODAY” she thought of him “the whole time and it helped me a lot.”

She went on to take gold on uneven bars, second place in the all-around and third in the floor exercise.

Then, in 2020, when Covid hit, she was forced to pause training. During the pandemic, she lost her aunt and uncle to the virus. And shortly after returning to gymnastics in June 2020, she injured her ankle, putting her back out of commission for three months.

The pause, she told People, helped her “mentally and physically.”

“Right now, mentally it’s helped because it makes me want this even more,” she said. “I want to do it for my family and coaches obviously, but I also want to do it for myself. I’ve just been through so much.”

Tokyo, though, came with its own disappointment — Lee’s family was unable to be in the stands to cheer her on due to Covid restrictions.

“This has been our dream for like the longest, basically since I was a baby,” she said of her and her dad.

John Lee, father of Sunisa Lee of Team United States, celebrates after she won gold in the Women’s All-Around gymnastics Final on day six of the Tokyo Olympic Games at a watch party on July 29, 2021 in Oakdale, Minn.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images
Family and friends react after Sunisa Lee of Team United States won gold in the Women’s All-Around Final on day six of the Tokyo Olympic Games at a watch party on July 29, 2021 in Oakdale, Minn.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

“I wish he was here,” she told Hoda Kotb after her win on Thursday. “He always told me if I win the gold medal he would come out on the ground and do a backflip. It’s sad that he can’t be here, but this is our dream and this our medal.”

“We both worked for this. He sacrificed everything to put me in gymnastics. Both my parents really have,” said Lee, who has five siblings. “This is my family’s medal, my medal, my coach’s medal.”

Lee, who is headed to Auburn University in the fall, told The New York Times that she got into gymnastics when she was 6 years old after getting hooked on YouTube videos of the sport. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” she said. “It looked so fun, and I wanted to try it myself.”

John Lee told NBC’s “TODAY” that, to get her started, he built her a balance beam in the backyard since the family couldn’t afford one.

“He’s been by my side through everything, and he’s done all my competitions with me,” Lee said.

While her family’s absence in Japan is “heartbreaking,” Lee told People, “I think they’re going to have a little watch party.”

Sure enough, Lee’s family and dozens of loved ones and supporters in St. Paul, were watching together Thursday and erupted into cheers when it was clear she would be bringing home the gold.

Lee told Elle magazine in May that her Hmong community back home is “really close.”

Her success, she said, “means a lot to the Hmong community … and to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too.”

Lee had already made history as the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics, and Thursday made more when she became the first Asian American woman to win gold in the Olympics’ all-around competition.

Lee, who also won silver at the Tokyo Games in the team final Tuesday, will go on to compete for titles in the bars and beam finals next week.

It’s unclear if her teammate, Simone Biles, will join her at the individual finals after pulling out of the team and all-around events to focus on her mental health.

Lee noted the decision was a game-changer for her, as Biles was the presumptive favorite for gold.

“It was a lot to take in, just because I was coming in to take a silver spot, but I feel like I just kind of went out there and did it for myself,” she said.

Lee has the most difficult uneven bars routine in the world. Her seamless flow from one move to another on not only the bars, but also the mat and the beam, is what sets her apart.

“I feel like people see me as a specialist on bars, which I feel like I have a lot more to give than just that … I think if I’m able to maintain, then I’m a good all-arounder,” she told “TODAY.”

In her USA team bio, she lists her favorite event as the balance beam.

Other favorites: the “Full House” spinoff “Fuller House,” Harry Potter books, the 2011 rom-com “Just Go With It” and pasta.

Responding to the bio question, “How did you get involved with gymnastics?,” she answered: “It was fun, and I like to do flips.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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