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Hmong Minn. revel in Sunisa Lee’s Olympic journey

By Peter Cox

As St. Paul’s Sunisa Lee heads to the Tokyo Olympics in the coming days, the country’s Hmong community is expected to watch closely as the first Hmong American competes there on the gymnastics world stage.

Two weeks ago, on her way to the U.S. Women’s Olympics gymnastics team, Lee made her mark in the last round of trials, scoring highest in the beam and the uneven parallel bars, and earning a standing ovation.

Tremendous support flows to Lee from the Hmong community in Minnesota and the U.S., says Seng Alex Vang.

“I think a lot of people are sharing in this success because, again, like, this is such a historic moment for our community to have someone become an Olympian,” he said.

Vang, a lecturer in Asian American Studies at California State University, Stanislaus manages an online news platform, called the Hmong American Experience.

“When a Hmong person is able to do something, whether it’s good or bad, it reflects our entire community,” he said. “Because Hmong people live in different countries as well, although she’s Hmong American, in some ways, she represents the entire global Hmong community, too.”

It’s a lot on the 18-year-old Olympian’s shoulders. Lee fought back from an ankle injury, and she experienced family hardship after an accident left her father partially paralyzed.

“There’s a lot of pressure. And there’s a lot of stress that comes with visibility,” said Dr. MayKao Hang, dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at the University of St. Thomas. “I’m sure she’s used to that by now because she is very competitive. And obviously, she’s very talented to get to where she is.“

Hang also founded Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together, a group aimed at improving the lives of Hmong women.

“When I was Suni’s age, we weren’t allowed to actually participate in high school sports, much less activities that were occurring in middle school or elementary schools. Girls were thought of as children to be loved for sure, but as being in the home and assisting with families,” Hang said.

She said Lee making the Olympic team represents not only a big moment for Hmong Americans, but also a change in culture.

“Suni represents so much more than the athletics and the competition, the fact that she’s reached this threshold moment in her career,” Hang said. “It’s what so many women of my generation who are in our 40s were trying to fight for when we were in our 20s because we remember what it’s like to actually be not allowed to participate in tennis or in gymnastics or just in any kind of sport.”

“And it’s a signal of how we should invest in young people as well to be a Hmong girl and be living the life she’s living with the talent that she has. It just brings tears to my eyes, quite honestly,” Hang said.

Lee Pao Xiong, the director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, hopes Lee’s discipline and skill will teach the country and the world more about Hmong people.

“This will definitely bring more visibility to the Hmong community. People will learn more about who we are as a people,” Xiong said. “So I think this is wonderful.”

Hang said Lee’s story is quintessentially American — one of hard work, determination and the support of her family and community that leads to competition at an elite level.

“So the fact that we just completed this year in history where we are coming out of this terrible pandemic, where we were seeing health inequities across the world, I think she represents the best of what America can have and to offer,” Hang said. “And that makes me proud as an American.”

As she told KARE 11 last year, Lee’s Olympic team achievement has been a long time coming.

“It’s been my goal for 10 years, and now it’s coming up so soon,” she said.

Lee and four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles earned the two automatic berths on the Team USA roster, after they got the two highest all-around scores during the Olympic trials.

Lee will be joined on the team by Grace McCallum, from Isanti, Minn.

MPR News digital editor Nancy Yang contributed reporting for this story.