In Suni Lee's Story Is the Hmong Story as Well

Gymnast is the first from her ethnic community to compete for America
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 30, 2021 12:30 PM CDT
In Suni Lee's Story Is the Hmong Story as Well
Sunisa Lee's parents, Yeev Thoj, left, and John Lee, and other family and friends react as they watch her win the gold medal.   (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

Sunisa "Suni" Lee was going to make history even if she returned from the Tokyo Olympics without a single medal. The 18-year-old is the first Hmong American to compete, and not only did she compete, she is taking home the gold in individual all-around gymnastics. Lee's victory is calling attention not just to her own story but to that of the Hmong American community. Coverage:

  • Roughly 300,000 Hmong live in the US, most of them in Minnesota (where Lee is from) and Wisconsin, per CNN. The vast majority are those who settled here in the 1970s and 1980s from Southeast Asia, and their descendants. The exodus occurred after the US withdrew from Vietnam after recruiting Hmong soldiers to fight.
  • "We were nomadic and we didn't have a place to belong and I feel like we fought adversity," says Koua Yang, athletic director at a high school in St. Paul. "We were warriors throughout history, and here we are in the United States living the American dream. (Lee) epitomizes all that. ... All the struggles."

  • Lee's parents are from Laos, notes CBS News. Her father, John Lee, was paralyzed from the chest down in a fall from a ladder in 2019, per ESPN, which details their special relationship. The elder Lee once built his daughter a makeshift balance beam in their yard because they couldn't afford to buy one. More family tribulations: During the course of the pandemic, Suni Lee lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19.
  • In a Washington Post op-ed, second-generation Hmong American Phillipe Thao writes that Lee's gold medal is a win not just for the US, but for all Asian Americans and particularly the Hmong. He notes a common phrase that translates to: "Hmong have to love Hmong. Who else will love Hmong?” That ethos embodies the community. Lee's victory "isn't a means to mend a broken country, nor to gain acceptance from a nation that once abandoned us," he writes. "Her success has replaced tears of trauma with tears of joy. Our elders have always yearned that one day we will have a country to unify our people. Suni Lee proved that our love for one another is enough."
  • Lee tweeted this video of family and friends celebrating for her back home in Minnesota, calling them "the people I do it all for."
(More Sunisa Lee stories.)

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