“It’s an American story, an immigrant story,” is how Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, described the Olympic gymnastic success of gold medal winner Sunnisa “Suni” Lee of St. Paul. This is a part of the narrative of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.”
The daughter of Hmong immigrants, Lee won the gold medal in Tokyo in the women’s individual all-around event of the gymnastic competition and subsequently captured the hearts of people worldwide. She also won a bronze medal in the uneven bars competition and has garnered three medals including a silver as part of team USA in the team competition.
“For our community, her win is a source of great pride,” said Thao-Urabe who is Hmong. This is what our parents and our ancestors knew we could do. They knew about out potential.
“It’s unfortunate that we live in a country that has not given us every opportunity to succeed,’ she said. ‘We could have had an Olympian long before now. The way the press has talked about it [Suni’s success] is as if our community has not been here. It seems it takes something like this to almost create value and worth for us.”
Lee took the spotlight after Simone Biles sat out due to emotional and physical issues. But before she reached the Olympics, the 18-year-old had to overcome the adversity of losing an aunt and uncle to COVID-19, her father’s partial paralysis, and her own injuries and anxieties.
Both her parents expressed the significance of Lee’s Olympic success to the Hmong community. “I can’t find the words to express how happy we are, how important that was to me and my family and to the whole Hmong community throughout the world,” her father, John Lee, said in an Associated Press interview.
Her mother expressed the same sentiment in a local story on Lee’s success: “It’s amazing that she’s the first Hmong ever,” said Yeev Thoj. “It’s a huge thing for the community and for our families.”
Not only has Lee brought attention to her family and the Hmong community through her performance; she has also displayed amazing empathy and grace throughout the Olympic games. She almost skipped the national games because she wanted to be available to her father, who had suffered lower-body paralysis after a fall off a ladder while helping a neighbor trim a tree.
Her father’s accident occurred just before the national championships, and she told her family at the time she wasn’t going. But her father insisted that she go, telling his daughter that she had worked too hard not to compete.
She has called her dad her best friend. He has supported her from the beginning, placing her in gymnastics at age six. The family could not afford to buy a balance beam, so her father built a balance beam for his daughter to practice on in the family’s backyard, which is still there. Her mother said she had a strong grip as early as six months.
Lee said she wanted to win for first-generation Americans and the Hmong community. Her success is a testament to the tightness of the St. Paul Hmong community, which yearly organized fundraisers to support her.
When her teammate Simone Biles was no longer able to perform, Lee was one of the first to support her. She stepped up and told the world and U.S. media in a tweet, “We do not owe anyone a Gold medal. We are winners in our hearts.”
The Twin Cities is home to the largest Hmong population in the U.S. There is talk about the Hmong community being unseen, but here the Hmong have made their mark, especially in St. Paul where Hmong businesses, nonprofits, and cultural centers are an important part of the multi-cultural and multi-racial landscape.
The ethnic group, which historically was largely agrarian, has its origins in China. Many lived in the mountains and hills of Laos, and after taking the side of the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict they were viewed collectively as persona non grata after the war, finding themselves having to flee genocide attempts.
Many spent years in refugee camps as they sought to resettle in this country.
“Many of us came here with little more than the clothes on our back and what we could carry in bags,” said Thao-Urabe. “We feel like she did it for us.”