Sunisa Lee is a member of the Hmong community in the Twin Cities, where she is seen as an ambassador of the community as the first Hmong-American to represent the United States at the Olympics. Lee, who goes by Suni, is 18.
Minnesota’s Twin Cities are home to 80,000 members of the Hmong community, according to the Star Tribune. Her sendoff party included messages of support that were culturally Hmong mingled with American culture, the article said.
USA Today called Lee “a rising star.” Her routine on the uneven bars is one of the most difficult in the world, the article said. She won a bronze medal in the uneven bars and will face off against Simone Biles in the balance beam.
Here’s what you need to know:
Sunisa Lee’s Parents Fled War-Torn Laos to Thailand as Young Children
As the first Hmong-American to represent the United States at the Olympic games, her ethnic heritage is important to her community, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“Within her community, Lee is viewed as an ambassador and role model,” the article said. “As an Olympian, she represents the dreams the Hmong carried with them starting in the late 1970s, when many sought refuge in the U.S. after the Vietnam War.”
Hmong fought alongside American troops in Laos, and tens of thousands of them were killed in war or killed by the Lao government after United States’ troops withdrew, the article said. Suni Lee’s parents, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were young children at the time, and fled the country with their families to refugee camps in Thailand after making a dangerous trek across the Mekong River, the article said.
“When the U.S. pulled out of Laos, the war wasn’t over,” John Lee told the newspaper. “People had to go to Thailand for their safety, and for a chance to have a better life.”
Many members of the Hmong community settled in Minnesota, including Lee’s parents and other members of her extended family, the article said.
Suni Lee’s Dad Made Her a Balance Beam Which She Practiced in Their Yard in the Twin Cities
Sunisa Lee’s dad was an early supporter of his daughter’s ambitions, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her parents signed her up for gymnastics when she was 6, the article said, seeking an outlet for her energy. She would often tumble and flip around their yard, they told the Star Tribune.
Her aunt, Cecelia Lee, told the newspaper it was “a little bit surreal” that her niece would be in the Olympics. She “recalled watching a much younger Suni in the same backyard, swinging from the metal bars holding the clotheslines and practicing on a wooden balance beam crafted by her dad,” the article said.
Her dad gives her a pep talk before every competition, the article said. Even if he is not there, he is sure to share words of encouragement over FaceTime. Her mother, though, gets so nervous she can’t watch, she told the newspaper.
“I get so nervous,” Yeev Thoj told the newspaper. “My heart beats so fast. At the Olympic trials, she did so well, I was in tears every time she finished an event.”