The Hmong community would have been proud of Sunisa Lee, medal or not.
When Lee made history on Thursday, clinching Olympic gold in the all-around final—the greatest individual prize in the sport, cheers erupted across the country. But likely no room was louder than that of at the Brothers Event Center in Minnesota where Lee’s family hosted a public watch party. As Lee claimed the fifth-consecutive title for the U.S. in the category and did so as the first Hmong American athlete on the Olympic stage, a sea of nearly 300 people, most of whom were Hmong, decked out in “Team Suni” gear joyously applauded at the realization that an Olympic goal, 10 years in the making, had been realized.
“How are you feeling? You can breathe! Breathe!” said Shyenne Lee, the athlete’s sister, who answered a Facetime call from Lee right before she claimed her medal on the podium.
It’s easy for the community to rally around Lee not only because she’s a Hmong athlete on the world stage, but also because she has always been proud to be Hmong—representing her culture in interviews and staying close with her hometown community. For this close-knit community in St. Paul, Minn., Lee’s win was the ultimate proof that generations to come can dare to dream big.
Hmong women, especially, haven’t always been afforded the same kind of agency, opportunity and support as their male counterparts. “Traditionally we’re not allowed to do extracurriculars, to do sports, or even to pursue our dreams like this,” says Bina Lee (no relation to the gymnast), a grad school student from the same neighborhood as Suni Lee. For decades, the narrative has been that a “good” daughter should not venture far from home, and the pressure to conform to these expectations is often overwhelming. So for Hmong women and girls of all generations, Lee’s win serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished when potential is nurtured. Her father, John Lee, has been her biggest advocate throughout her career. The family’s investment in her love for the sport—along with her raw talent—has undoubtedly made her one of the greatest athletes of our time.
Trinity Vang, who also hails from St. Paul, feels similarly. “We get to visualize what a supportive Hmong father, a supportive Hmong mother, can do for our Hmong daughters.” she says. “At the end of it, we will always be with Sunisa through her victories and losses.”
The opportunity for gold emerged only in the last few days. Lee herself has said that she had hoped for silver since teammate Simone Biles had been expected to maintain her title as reigning all-around champion. Then, Biles withdrew to take care of her mental health.
“I feel like people forget that she’s human. We don’t owe anybody anything. We don’t owe you a gold medal. You’re not the one competing.” Lee said at a press conference. But Biles’ decision, supported by her teammates, opened the door for Lee to rise to the occasion.
Sandy Vue, who works in higher education and calls St. Paul home, watched along during the nail-biting competition. “It was so great to see her stand up for Simone,” she says. “And Suni was right. She didn’t have to prove anything to us and she won anyway. That’s pretty badass.”
Lee’s battle with Rebeca Andrade of Brazil for first place ended with Lee’s best scoring floor exercise yet in the early hours of the morning in the U.S. The results were the first thing Bina checked when she woke up, flooded with an overwhelming sense of joy at the news.
“I can’t imagine staying calm and collected like that, but I think she knew she was going to medal because she had a full set of nails,” she jokes. (Lee’s nails featured a set of Olympic rings.)
Bina was especially touched by the videos of Lee’s watch party that spread across social media where loved ones and strangers united to celebrate the success of the rising star. “Seeing the unwavering support from her family and seeing the videos of them all cheering for her just makes me tear up,” she says. “Suni’s parents are a great example of Hmong parents who are changing the game.”
In a post-win tweet, responding to a reaction video from her watch party with her family at the forefront, she writes, “The people I do it all for. I love you all!”
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