Hours before most of the U.S. saw the Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee perform the final routine that would win her the title of all-around gymnastics champion on Thursday’s delayed primetime broadcast, a few hundred people packed into a Minnesota hall to watch the 18-year-old compete in real time.
In that room were the forces that propelled the St. Paul native along the rigorous path to Tokyo, where she would become the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics.
Seated at the front was her father, John Lee, who built a wooden balance beam in the backyard so that a young Lee could practice her flips between gym sessions. When he suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019 that initially left him paralyzed from the chest down, his daughter took his strength as inspiration for her own training. Beside him was Lee’s mother, Yeev Thoj, and all around them, family and friends, many of them members of the local Hmong community.
Lee had said that she was aiming for the silver medal in the all-around competition. Her teammate Simone Biles had won gold in 2016 and was projected to do so again this year. But when Biles withdrew from the all-around competition earlier this week for mental health reasons, suddenly the gold was back on the table.
Just before 8 a.m. Thursday, the results of the floor exercise, the last component of the all-around competition, were announced, and the crowd rose to their feet, roaring.
Their cheers, which Lee heard through Facetime before heading to the medal ceremony, were just the latest installment in the years of support the Hmong community has given the young Olympian.
“I love the Hmong community. I wouldn't be here without them,” Lee told NBC’s Mike Tirico after the win. “This medal is dedicated to them because, without them, this dream wouldn’t be possible.”
But the crowd in that room was just a fraction of Lee’s loyal Hmong American fanbase. In Madison, Hmong Americans have been following Lee’s progress since long before the Tokyo games, excited by her enthusiasm for gymnastics and for the Hmong community.
Zon Moua, youth justice director for Freedom Inc., was still lying in bed when she saw a series of text messages and social media posts celebrating the win. She wondered if she was dreaming.
“I got really emotional. I was crying tears of joy. It just felt so good,” Moua said. She lay there thinking about all the other people who might be crying over the win too. “This is more than a physical medal. It is really us celebrating and uplifting her and seeing a reflection of ourselves in her.”
Chao Xiong, vice chair for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hmong American Student Association, leapt out of his chair when he heard the news.
“This is such a big deal because she paves the way for more athletes in the Hmong and many other minority communities to pursue their dreams in sports, academics, and follow their love,” Xiong wrote in an email. “It is an amazing achievement and inspiring to even live in this moment as Sunisa makes history.”
Naly Jasengnou and Tou Lor, owners of Naly’s Floral Shop on Madison’s north side, were among those watching eagerly as Lee entered the preliminary competitions to qualify for the Olympics. “Knowing that she did get qualified brought joy and honor to us,” the couple said in an email, calling her gold medal performance “breathtaking and amazing to watch.”
“We take great pride in her achievements and her representing the United States of America and the Hmong community,” they wrote. “She will be remembered as a role model for us and generations to come.”
Pride and progress
Lee’s win shows just how much the Hmong community has accomplished in the time since the first major waves of refugees arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s, said Zang Vang, who works for the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
“We came from the jungle where there’s no formal education,” Vang said. “But in 40 years, we have achieved a lot of things.”
Vang said the win will be particularly exciting for his daughter and his 6-year-old niece — a gymnast herself. As a parent, he’s especially impressed by the way Lee’s family supported her athletic aspirations. When he was a kid, he said, his parents discouraged him from playing sports for fear he’d get hurt, encouraging him instead to focus on school.
“A lot of people use sports to achieve their dreams and goals,” Vang said.
Maysee Herr, executive director of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that Lee’s win shows Hmong youth and youth from other historically underserved communities that they can do more than they might have thought possible.
“They can have big dreams and they can come true,” Herr wrote. “That’s not to say there won’t be obstacles that life throws their way but that with determination and perseverance, they too, can reach the stars.”
Chue Feing Thao, a Hmong resource specialist for the Madison Metropolitan School District and president of Tswv Nploog Thoj Family, Inc., likened Lee’s win to the Milwaukee Bucks’ NCAA championship win earlier this month. It was the first time Milwaukee had won the title in 50 years, drawing excitement far outside Milwaukee.
“I believe that not only are Hmong-Americans proud of Suni Lee, but all American people throughout the nation, as well as people around the world, are proud of her as well,” Thao wrote in an email.
Moua, the organizer who found herself crying in bed over the news, said the Hmong American community particularly needed something to celebrate after a difficult year-and-a-half. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Hmong communities especially hard: University of Minnesota researchers found that in their state, Hmong people were dying of COVID at higher rates than any other Asian population. Meanwhile, the country has seen a surge in incidents of anti-Asian hate, including the Atlanta spa shootings that left eight dead, six of them Asian.
“There's still so much more work to do,” said Moua, whose organization works to counter gender-based violence and racial injustice. That work weighs heavily on her, she said. Sometimes it feels impossible.
“I think that's why, in these moments ... it's so important that we actually celebrate,” she said, adding that it’s been powerful to see Lee’s win celebrated not just in the Hmong American community, but by people around the world.
“This is why I do what I do: so that people can really experience joy and see themselves and see what they're capable of,” Moua said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated the John Lee was paralyzed from the waist down. He was initially paralyzed from the chest down and continues to use a wheelchair.