What Sunisa Lee Did For Hmong Americans, a Nation Within a Nation

Sunisa Lee Hmong American

I was never an avid follower of the Olympics. I tuned into the Games when they made their way around and sometimes I watched highlights after they ended. But this year I paid attention.

I woke up at 5 AM and didn’t have my morning coffee, but my eyes were focused on the TV searching for the individual all-around gymnastics competition. I felt like I was watching my little sister compete. I watched the different country’s rotations and kept thinking to myself, “C’mon, when is Suni coming in? Get back to the USA team, where are they?”

Finally, Sunisa Lee showed up on screen and it was her time to perform. She scored a high 14.600 on the vault. Following that would be the uneven bars, her specialty. Suni scored the highest on the uneven bars with a 15.300 and remained a top scorer. On the beam, commentators mentioned her beautiful save when she looked a bit off balance during a wolf turn. Still, Suni scored a 13.833 to keep her total score high.

When it came down to the final floor exercise I was literally on the edge of my seat. If Suni did not mess up, she guaranteed herself a top-three spot. My adrenaline pumped with her every footstep as she sprinted across the floor. My eyes widened, my heart and breath stopped each time she launched for a flip. They started again once she landed on her feet inbounds. I watched Suni perform a nearly perfect routine to take the lead. There was nail-biting tension watching the remaining countries also perform well, but in the end they could not top her total score. Once it was announced Sunisa Lee won gold, I got teary-eyed. I witnessed history in the making.

Sunisa Lee Gold Medal
Sunisa Lee during the medal ceremony after her victory (sunisalee/Instagram)


Suni Lee’s win put both Saint Paul, MN and Hmong people on the map. The Hmong never had a country. We are a nomadic people, many of whom immigrated to America after the Secret War in which Americans recruited Hmong people to fight against Vietnam. When the United States pulled out, the Hmong were stranded. We were granted political asylum by the U.S. and many settled there. Now, decades later, she is an offspring of a people without a country who sprung her way towards a gold medal.

Forty years ago, Hmong people almost exclusively lived in hillsides and mountaintops. It was rare to find the Hmong in nearby villages let alone major cities. Now one of us won gold at the world’s greatest sporting event. As I sat on my couch still teary-eyed and proud of the Hmong milestone, I immediately searched for Suni’s results on my phone and posted a screenshot of the win to social media. Not to my surprise, many of my Hmong friends were flooding the timeline as well. It was a proud day to be Hmong.

The United States women’s national gymnastics team has had the reigning gold medalists in the all-around since Gabby Douglas back in the 2012 London Olympics. Simone Biles held the title in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. And this year, Suni Lee helped her team keep the throne. Then she goes on to win a silver and a bronze in other categories allowing her to bring home a full set of medals.

At the end of the day, however, Americans bask in the glory of this American gymnast.

As children of immigrants, it’s up to us to make America look good. The United States of America has the most diverse group of competitors at each Olympics. Before Gabby Douglas, Russian-born Nastia Liukin held the all-around gold for the women’s team. Outside of gymnastics this year, first-generation South Sudanese American Athing Mu won two gold medals: one in the 800m and another in the 4x400m relay. These are only a couple examples of first-generation and foreign-born Americans on USA Olympic teams. It’s important those who make it use the platform to represent their respective ethnicities.

For Suni Lee to win gold is a proud feat for herself, her family, and America’s reputation. But for the Hmong people, it’s a bittersweet milestone. Above all, she is an American hero. She served and represented America. It’s a broken mirror piece of a reflection. Many immigrant generations continue to feel social divides. As ethnic minorities, we don’t always get the same chances at success. But like Suni, you can represent your people and pave the way for future generations to go out and get it.

Suni’s journey tells a story of resilience. During her competition, the news often recapped the story of her father and his support in her gymnastics journey since childhood. Her father became handicapped in 2019 and it fueled her. She propelled even further to make her father proud. Her story is replicated resilience of Hmong people’s stories. We bounce back.

We don’t have a country, but give us a platform like a balance beam or a floor exercise and we will show you what we’re made of. And now because of Sunisa Lee, I, too, am basking in glory.

The world knows her as an American gymnast. But to the Hmong community, our little sister is a hero. Minnesota and the city of Saint Paul welcomed Sunisa Lee back with an honorary day. The Hmong community will rally around her forever. Little Asian girls who look like Sunisa have a role model to look up to, knowing their dreams are within grasp. She represented the United States of America, but Suni’s win and her story will inspire future generations of Hmong people to come.


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