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Olympian Sunisa Lee's golden moment sparks joy at home

by The Associated Press | July 30, 2021 at 2:19 a.m.
American gold medalist Sunisa Lee (from left), silver medalist Rebeca Andrade of Brazil and bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee take a selfie Thursday after the medal ceremony for the women’s gymnastics all-around competition in Tokyo. (AP/Gregory Bull)

MINNEAPOLIS -- There were cheers and screams and "happy tears" for one of their own, and unending delight for what many saw as an "Only in America" story.

Sunisa Lee captured the women's all-around gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday, a triumph that wowed all of Minnesota but carried special resonance in the state's close-knit Hmong American community, one of the largest in the United States.

"I can't find the words to express how happy we are, how important that was to me and my family and to the whole Hmong community throughout the world," John Lee, father of one of the brightest lights now in Tokyo, told The Associated Press. "We never expected gold, but she came through. She did it."

That she did, and dozens of her family and friends gathered early in the morning at a suburban St. Paul event center to watch the gymnastics broadcast from Tokyo.

Sunisa Lee got an opening when reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around competition to focus on her mental health. There was nervous silence at the watch party as Lee turned in a brilliant set on uneven bars, a nervy performance on beam and a well-executed floor exercise.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to view » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siHyh22HUAQ]

When Rebeca Andrade of Brazil stepped out of bounds twice during her floor routine, John Lee said, everybody knew his 18-year-old daughter would soon be bedecked in gold.

"It was neck to neck going to that last event, and when she pulled it off, my mind, just oh my God, is this really real?" Lee said. "And when we saw that she won, it, I couldn't even find the right words to say how happy, how proud I am of her. ... I never cry, I try not to in front of people, I do deep inside, but I don't want to show it to the world. ... My daughter cried, my wife cried ... happy tears."

Puner Koy, who coached Sunisa Lee for several years when she first came to Midwest Gymnastics in the St. Paul suburb of Little Canada, caught part of her performance at the watch party. Then he had to leave for the gym to work. He said he could barely hold back his tears on the drive. He recalled her trying out at age 6 and called her a "phenom."

"Immediately there was tremendous talent, you could see the strength to bodyweight ratio was quite evident," Koy said. "She had a certain fearlessness about her."

Lee was a quick study. The coach said she often went from learning a skill in a drill to doing it on an apparatus the same day. He described a particular aerial on the beam that Gabby Douglas did at the 2012 London Olympics. Lee replicated it at age 8 or 9 on the beam her father built in the family yard.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, notes that Lee is the first Hmong American to go to the Olympics. He said the only other Hmong athlete to do so was a gold medalist on the Chinese weightlifting team in 2008.

"You have the child of a refugee representing the United States of America, so not only representing America, but bringing the spotlight to the Hmong community," Xiong said. "Even for her to be so proud to say 'I'm doing this for my community, I'm doing this for my people,' she didn't forget her Hmongness."

Lee's progress highlights a cultural and generational shift among Hmong American families, who traditionally emphasized education as a way out of poverty and attached little value to sports. But the Lees are athletes. Her father, who served in the U.S. Navy, said he was active in sports growing up.

"All three of my girls can do backflips, none of the boys can," the father said.

Several local Hmong leaders said Lee's victory shows sports can be a path for this community.

"Our parents always pounded it in our heads to study -- extracurricular activities are playing," Xiong said. "I think Sunisa demonstrated that it will lead to something if you work hard at it."

Sunisa Lee is bound next for Auburn University, and community members are raising scholarship money for her. John Lee hopes she'll compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics, but now is not the time to decide.

"She's been so, so overwhelmed because she missed all the vacation, she missed all, every family event ... she worked so hard, she had no friends outside school and just a few in gymnastics world," he said. "We'll see when she comes home."

Shyenne Lee, 18, left foreground, the older sister of St. Paul Olympian Sunisa Lee, reacts alongside Souayee Vang and other family and friends as they watch Sunisa Lee clinch the gold medal in the women's Olympic gymnastics all-around at the Tokyo Olympics Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Oakdale, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)
Shyenne Lee, 18, left foreground, the older sister of St. Paul Olympian Sunisa Lee, reacts alongside Souayee Vang and other family and friends as they watch Sunisa Lee clinch the gold medal in the women's Olympic gymnastics all-around at the Tokyo Olympics Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Oakdale, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)
Sunisa Lee, of United States, reacts as she poses for a picture after winning the gold medal in the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sunisa Lee, of United States, reacts as she poses for a picture after winning the gold medal in the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sunisa Lee, of United States, poses for a picture after winning the gold medal in the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sunisa Lee, of United States, poses for a picture after winning the gold medal in the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, powders her hands before her performance on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, powders her hands before her performance on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Gold medallist Sunisa Lee of the Unites States, left, and bronze medallist Angelina Melnikova, of the Russian Olympic Committee, celebrate during the medal ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Gold medallist Sunisa Lee of the Unites States, left, and bronze medallist Angelina Melnikova, of the Russian Olympic Committee, celebrate during the medal ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Gold medallist Sunisa Lee of the Unites States displays her medal for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gold medallist Sunisa Lee of the Unites States displays her medal for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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