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Sunisa Lee, thinking of her dad back home, earns gold in gymnastics worlds debut

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STUTTGART, Germany — As Sunisa Lee stood on the podium, wearing a gold medal in her world championships debut, she replayed her three routines from Tuesday’s team final. Then she thought about her dad, who is always on her mind these days.

“He FaceTimed me last night,” Lee said. “I know that he’s watching.”

Her father, John, streamed the team final from the spinal cord injury center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He is rehabbing after being paralyzed from the chest down falling off a ladder on Aug. 4. He was helping a friend trim branches from a tree to set up a tent for a wedding.

“Wish I could have been there to see it, but it is what it is,” John, who served in the Navy on board the USS Trenton during the Persian Gulf War, said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “To see her and her teammates do so well, it’s amazing.”

Lee, 16 and one of six kids, broke out at her first senior U.S. Championships in August, finishing second to Simone Biles, one week after John’s accident. She considered not traveling from Minnesota to Kansas City for that meet. She spent the whole day before her departure date with her dad in the hospital, then went ahead to compete in part because of his urging.

Practice before the first day of competition was particularly difficult, given John was undergoing eight hours of surgery. They FaceTimed before each day of the two days of competition.

Lee surprised herself in doing so well, winning the uneven bars title, while overcoming a hairline fracture in her tibia that was 75 to 80 percent healed. She was third in the all-around at junior nationals the previous year.

“I was thinking of my dad the whole time,” she said, “and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud.”

Then, at the world team selection camp in September, she finished second to Biles again. This time it was a margin of just .35 of a point, closer than any of Biles’ last five U.S. titles. Lee established herself as a medal contender at worlds in the all-around (Thursday) and on uneven bars (Saturday).

With me being injured, with all this pressure on her, I cannot believe she’s doing so well,” John said. “I’m very proud of her.”

As is Biles, who after breaking the women’s record for most world championships medals on Tuesday chose to spotlight Lee, the youngest member of the world team and the lone rookie.

“What’s impressed me the most, I think, has been Suni,” Biles said of Lee, who before podium training last week voiced her nervousness to her veteran teammates. “She’s only 16 years old. She’s been through a long year, and to come out and put up the three events and the scores she did is pretty crazy.”

John watched as Lee was the busiest U.S. gymnast aside from Biles on Tuesday. She opened by posting the U.S.’ top score on bars. After falling off the balance beam, Lee recovered with a slightly better floor exercise routine than she performed in qualifying. She was then asked where she planned to place the gold medal.

“Probably on my front door,” she said, “so I can stare at it.”

Lee’s goal is to leave Stuttgart with three medals: make Thursday’s all-around podium and place top two in the uneven bars final, which also includes Biles. “I think I’m a little bit far off from Simone, just because she’s so good,” Lee said before the meet.

“Our goal is always to use Simone as the measuring stick and try to get as close as you can,” said her coach, Jess Graba. “If you’re shooting for the top, you should land somewhere close.”

Lee used some of a teenager’s most valuable real estate — her Instagram bio — to add a link to a gofundme page for her dad. So far, more than 350 donors have given a combined $24,000, halfway to the goal. The funds will go to medical expenses, lost wages and housing and transportation accommodations.

“It surprises me that a lot of friends and family and co-workers, but also so many of Sunisa’s teammates, coaches, fans, everybody got in there and supported that page,” John said. “I appreciate it so much. You cannot believe how many people.”

It is possible that John can walk again, but not guaranteed. He expects to be discharged at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

“So I will be able to watch the rest of her competition from the comfort of my home, which is awesome,” he said.

John said he will talk to his daughter again before Thursday’s all-around final, reminding her how well she’s doing and how proud he is of her.

“Tough little girl,” he said. “My goal is to walk. Hopefully I can walk before Tokyo. One way or another, if she makes it to Tokyo, I will be there.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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GYM WORLDS: TV Schedule | Results

Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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