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Gymnast Sunisa Lee's Gold Medal Elates Her Hometown Hmong Community

Sunisa Lee of the United States performs on the balance beam Tuesday during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the Tokyo Olympics.
Sunisa Lee of the United States performs on the balance beam Tuesday during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the Tokyo Olympics.

Updated July 29, 2021 at 12:03 PM ET

Minnesota native Sunisa Lee, also known as Suni, is an 18-year-old high school graduate, but she is no stranger to facing immense pressure. And while she's risen to the tops of world gymnastics, she's still grounded in her home Hmong community.

Lee won gold in Thursday's individual all-around competition, sending her supporters back home into a frenzy of joy. In an already history-making Olympics, Lee is the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team.

A crowd of Lee's family and fans watched in nervous silence as she awaited her final score on the floor exercise that secured her win.

Lee tweeted a video from that scene afterward, writing, "[T]he people i do it all for I LOVE YOU ALL."

Lee stepped up after Simone Biles pulled out

Lee's road to the podium hasn't been easy. And as a teammate of Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast in history, Lee didn't seem likely to win gold in the all-around — until Biles withdrew from the individual all-around final.

"CONGRATS PRINCESS," Biles said via Instagram as she praised Lee's win. "So so so beyond proud of you!!!!"

With Biles cheering them on, Lee and her teammates have stepped up at the Tokyo Olympics. After Biles' surprise move to exit the team final, Lee took Biles' place to compete in the floor exercise.

"I went out on that floor, and I just chucked every single thing,'' Lee told the Star Tribune. "When I had to go out there and do it, I just needed to do what I do.''

Her effort helped the team clinch a silver medal.

"It just shows you how amazing and well-trained she is, and how brave and smart she is,'' Biles said of her teammate.

It was a testament to Lee's talent and also the hard work she has done since taking up gymnastics at 6 — a "late" age for an elite athlete to start in a sport dominated by youth.

Lee took an unlikely path to elite status

Lee on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's final Tuesday.
Ashley Landis / AP
Lee on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's final Tuesday.

Lee grew up in a large family in St. Paul, Minn. As a young girl, the budding athlete practiced on a wooden balance beam her father built for her.

Gymnastics is a notoriously expensive sport, especially as athletes become older and competitions get more high-profile.

Patsy Thayieng, a former gymnast, told Time magazine that for the most part, the Hmong community Lee is a part of is not wealthy.

"You have to understand, this is a highly inaccessible sport, especially for communities like ours because it's so expensive and time-consuming," she said.

Lee's parents put her in gymnastics classes when she was 6, but even before then, her natural ability was already revealing itself.

"I used to flip around a lot and I was super-active," Lee, then 14, told Minnesota Public Radio in 2017. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, set up a tryout at Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, Minn., where the coaches quickly recognized Lee's potential. Over a decade later, she still trains there.

At just her second meet, a 7-year-old Lee won the state all-around title. From there, she raced through the levels USA Gymnastics uses to rate athletes. She qualified for the top ranking, elite status, as she turned 11, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Lee pushed through loss and injury

The last 17 months have been a whirlwind for Lee and her family.

Her gym shut down due to the coronavirus. She lost two relatives to COVID-19. She also endured a broken foot.

And in 2019, her father fell from a tree he was trimming and was seriously injured.

The accident happened a day before she was set to compete for the U.S. championships. Lee pushed through and competed just after her father had surgery, according to the Star Tribune.

During that competition, Lee made the all-around finals alongside Biles and finished eighth. She won gold in the team competition, silver in the floor exercise and bronze on the uneven bars.

The gymnast performs on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's final Tuesday.
Morry Gash / AP
The gymnast performs on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's final Tuesday.

Support from the Hmong community in Minnesota

At home in Minnesota, Lee's Hmong community, the largest in the U.S., was cheering her on Thursday, just as they have for years.

There are some 260,000 Hmong Americans living in the United States, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

There are only 18 clans of Hmong, an ethnic group from Laos, Vietnam and parts of China that sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

In the early 1960s, the CIA recruited Hmong to help keep the communist North Vietnamese out of neighboring Laos. In return, the U.S. promised to take care of them and their families. When Laos fell to the communists and U.S. troops pulled out in 1975, thousands of Hmong fled as refugees to neighboring Thailand and then resettled in the United States.

Lee's parents were children when they and their families fled Laos and made the dangerous journey to refugee camps in Thailand. Their families eventually settled in Minnesota and found a home among thousands of other Hmong who had come to the U.S. via a similar path.

The small community is proud of Lee's success as a gymnast.

"The Hmong here are very proud to be American,'' Sia Lo, a St. Paul attorney and a member of Lee's extended family, told the Star Tribune. "We hope all of America is proud of Suni. What she's achieved showcases what is possible here in the United States.''

Lee is known for a complicated uneven bar routine

When Lee competes for more medals in individual events going into next week, her strong routine on the uneven bars will likely be tough to beat.

Her routine on the bars is considered one of the hardest in the world due to the inclusion of a tricky skill called the Nabieva, named after Russian gymnast Tatiana Olegovna Nabieva.

Earlier this week, Lee received a score of 15.4 on the uneven bars during the U.S. team's final — the highest score any athlete has received on bars at the Olympics yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.