With Canadian wildfire smoke about to turn the sun into a hazy orange ball, Thoj woke before 5 a.m. Thursday and joined more than 300 friends and family members at an event center here to watch Sunisa Lee, her daughter, win the gold medal in the individual all-around gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics.
And on FaceTime calls with Sunisa afterward, the family wondered whether it all could be a dream.
“I don’t even know what to think,” said Sunisa’s father, John Lee. “I don’t even know if it’s real.”
“She’s an Olympic gold medalist,” added Shyenne, Sunisa’s sister. “It’s so unreal.”
At home in St. Paul, not far from the popular Hmong Village shopping mall, the family told and retold Lee’s childhood gymnastics stories to reporter after reporter, showing off the now-famous wooden beam that her dad built for the backyard and directing camera crews away from the pile of clothes she left on her bed, pointing them instead toward the medals hanging on her bedroom wall.
It was a joyful, exhausting day for a community that has found a home in Minnesota. Like many in the state’s Hmong community of more than 66,000, Lee’s parents fled Laos as children for refugee camps in Thailand before landing in St. Paul. Now they are celebrating both Lee’s accomplishments and the opportunity to share their culture with the world.
“A lot of people don’t know what being Hmong is,” Shyenne said. “It’s nice having people finally learn who we are.”
That includes a growing sense of the importance of sports, said Punnarith Koy, who coached Sunisa Lee when she joined Midwest Gymnastics at age 6.
“For first-generation Asians, when I grew up it was all about academics,” Koy said. “Mine did not encourage athletes — we had to sneak around. I forged a signature to do swimming.”
Just 3.3 percent of USA Gymnastics members identify as Asian, according to the organization, and Lee is the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast. But already Lee and others see that changing.
“There actually have been a bunch of little girls at the gym that are Hmong,” Lee said Friday. “They come up to me and ask for pictures and stuff. Their parents will be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re such a huge inspiration.’ ”
Even in her own family, younger relatives say Lee has taught them a lot. As sister Evionn, 12, and cousin Cassandra Thao, 13, watched Lee’s toddler brother, Noah, cruise down the ramp in front of their house Thursday, they discussed the implications of her win. It was cathartic, for starters, the first time they had been together as a community since the coronavirus pandemic started. “I’m so proud of their family,” Thao said.
And Evionn, who quit gymnastics during the pandemic when she couldn’t train in person, said Lee helped her embark on her new sport, volleyball, by playing with her in the park. (Evionn said Lee is not quite a gold medalist at volleyball but admits she’s “pretty good.”)
The family has a rule about staying active, Thoj explained from her backyard-turned-media platform while running on less than two hours of sleep. “We wanted our kids to be active, so we used to tell them they had to be involved in sports at school,” she said.
Lee benefited from a forward-thinking family that values sports as well as a culture that traditionally valued flexibility and acrobatics. At Hmong new year celebrations, Lee’s cousins would “tumble and flip and fly through the air” at the annual dancing competition, said Sia Lo, an attorney and relative of the Lees who nicknamed Sunisa “Olympic” at a young age.
“There are some moves in her floor routine that I choreographed,” said Shyenne, a dancer.
Lee’s motivation ran deeper than the family dictate, her parents noticed, as she missed out on family trips and gatherings to train. Beam scared her parents most. They couldn’t afford to buy one for extra practice, so John Lee built one for the backyard, topping it with part of an air mattress so she wouldn’t get splinters in her feet.
Although the family is disappointed not to be in Tokyo, Thoj often watches from afar anyway. “My heart beats really fast and I sweat,” she said, “and if she sees me nervous … she doesn’t like me going.” Lee’s father, on the other hand, has been giving her pep talks before competitions since she was young.
The family woke up Friday to the reality that Thursday’s gold medal was not a dream. And they may have more early morning celebrations ahead: Lee competes on the uneven bars before the sun rises in Minnesota on Sunday. Shyenne calls her sister the “bars queen,” but Koy predicts a showdown between Lee and Belgium’s Nina Derwael that could be “one for the ages.”
Whoever gets the gold, they will be celebrating again here, for Lee and what she represents. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed Friday Sunisa Lee Day in the state.
“It means everything to the Hmong community,” Lo said. “Yesterday we were fighting with the U.S. secret army in Southeast Asia, becoming refugees. And today we are also your doctors and lawyers and, now, Olympic champions. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
Giambalvo reported from Tokyo.