Gymnast Sunisa Lee Becomes the First Hmong American to Win a Gold Medal

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·4 min read
Gymnast Sunisa Lee Becomes the First Hmong American to Win a Gold Medal
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Sunisa Lee is an Olympic champion! The 18-year-old gymnast has made history as the first Hmong American to win a gold medal at an Olympic Games.

After the stunning departure of Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, to focus on her mental health, Lee became the highest-qualifying U.S. gymnast in the all-around final. She proved her skills in uneven bars with a score of 15.300—besting all other competitors by choosing a routine with the highest degree of difficulty. She scored a very strong 14.600 on vault, and remained solid enough on the balance beam to edge into lead with a 13.833 score. She scored 13.700 with her floor routine.

Photo credit: Tim Clayton - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Clayton - Corbis - Getty Images

Her stellar performances culminated in her being crowned the new Olympic women’s all-around champ on Thursday, a coveted gold medal that was suddenly up for grabs when Biles unexpectedly exited the competition.

In an exclusive interview with ELLE before heading to Tokyo, Lee said her gymnastics career started with a makeshift beam that her dad, John, constructed in the backyard of their St. Paul, Minnesota, home. It was a four-foot-long structure made from a spare mattress and a piece of plywood that, to John’s credit, still stands today.

In that same interview with ELLE, John said their Hmong community back in Minnesota was rooting for his daughter. If she won, John said, “it would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever. It will go down in history.” Both John and his wife, Yeev, are Hmong, an ethnic group made of people primarily from Southeast Asia and areas in China who fought alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War. After losing most of their land in the war, many Hmong fled to Thailand as refugees. By the late ‘70s and ‘80s, around 90 percent of the refugee population had resettled in the U.S., where there are now 18 Hmong clans, the largest residing in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“It’s nice knowing I have them to fall back on,” Lee told ELLE. “The support is amazing.”

At a watch party in Minnesota, Lee's parents wore "Team Suni" t-shirts and started crying and hugging when she won the gold medal.

"the people i do it all for I LOVE YOU ALL," Lee said in a Tweet response to video of the watch party.

John, who fell from a ladder while trimming a tree in 2019, is paralyzed from the chest down. He describes himself as his daughter’s biggest fan—and number one cheerleader. After his accident, he watched Lee compete at the 2019 National Championships from his hospital bed. He even gave her a pep talk via FaceTime beforehand. "She can stay focused when she puts her mind to it,” he told ELLE. Lee went on to win silver in the all-around competition at the National Championships, nailing one of the hardest bar routines in the world.

On the Olympic stage in Tokyo, Lee proved herself once again—this time, winning gold. She finished ahead of Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who came in second, and the Russian Olympic Committee’s Angelina Melnikova, who came in third.

Support has been pouring in for the gymnast on social media.

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