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Suni Lee, 1st Hmong American Olympic gymnast, brings pride to community with win

The talented 18-year-old gymnast just may have become the most famous Hmong American person in the country after her historic win at the Tokyo Olympics.
/ Source: TODAY

Sunisa "Suni" Lee wowed audiences Thursday with her incredible all-around performance, snatching the gold medal for Team USA.

"I was telling myself nothing more, nothing less, just do the same thing that I always do, telling myself to breathe because my heart was beating so fast," she told Hoda Kotb after her win. "I was so nervous, I just tell myself to go out there and give it my all because at this point there is no turning back."

The 18-year-old is the first Hmong American gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and the first to win. She is also the first Asian American woman to win gold in the all-around.

The Hmong American community was especially excited about her historic win, with many community members sharing their pride on social media.

News reporter Gia Vang tweeted, "She did it. @sunisalee_ is the queen of the women’s gymnastics all-around finals and her parents. OMG. Tears everywhere." The tweet was paired with the hashtags #Gold, #TokyoOlympics and #hmong.

Suni Lee
Suni Lee made history Thursday with her performance in the all-around final.Mustafa Yalcin / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What is Hmong American?

The Hmong (in English, the "h" is silent and is pronounced as "mong") people are an ethnic group who live mostly in southern China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and the United States.

Originally a minority in China, according to NBC Asian America the Hmong community were largely recruited to fight on behalf of the U.S. in what is now known as the "Secret War" in Laos during the 1960s.

"When Laos fell to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975 and U.S. troops pulled out, many Hmong became refugees, fleeing for Thailand and various refugee camps before eventually making it stateside," NBC Asian America reported.

According to a Pew Research Center fact sheet, in 2019 the Hmong population in the United States was approximately 327,000. The percentage of Hmong people in the U.S. living in poverty (17%) as of 2019 was higher than the percentage for all Americans (13%) and all Asians (10%). In the United States, the Hmong community is centered in California and the upper Midwest, primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“Hmong people did not come to the U.S. seeking the American dream that other immigrants talk about,” Annie Moua, a college student who grew up in Minnesota, told NBC Asian America back in 2020. “My parents came here because they were fleeing war and genocide. As a matter of fact, Hmong folks have been fleeing continuous genocides throughout centuries of our history.”

Lee hails from St. Paul, Minnesota; the metro area of the Twin Cities has the largest concentration of Hmong people in the country. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were children when their refugee families settled there.

According to a 2015 report from Minnesota Public Radio, the reason why many Hmong people found their way to the state was partly because the State Department gave resettlement contracts to volunteer agencies including the Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Service and Church World Service.

"As such, they placed people where they have churches and were willing to sponsor a family," Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, told MPR News. "After the initial Hmong families settled here, they encouraged their relatives and friends to move here as well, so that they could support each other. So, a great deal of secondary migration took place after the initial resettlement."

John Lee spoke with TODAY's Craig Melvin before Suni Lee competed in the Olympics, in the latest episode of Craig's digital series, "Dads Got This."

"I am proud. The family's proud," the elder Lee said. "The community is very proud of her."

He added, "It's unreal, you know? There's only four spots available and so she made it, and that’s pretty tough."

When asked by Elle magazine in May about his daughter potentially making the Olympic roster, he responded, “It would be the greatest accomplishment of any Hmong person in the U.S. ever. It will go down in history.”

On Thursday, that greatest accomplishment came true, and the proud dad was beaming with pride after his daughter's win.

“There’s no word that can express this right now,” John Lee told TODAY. “... My wife, everybody, the whole community’s here and they’re all holding their breath."

"This has been our dream forever," Suni Lee said after her win, referring to her father. "I wish he was here. He always told me if I win the gold medal he would come out on the ground and do a backflip. It's sad that he can't be here, but this is our dream and this our medal."