Sunisa Lee is one of the gymnasts competing for Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo. Lee comes from a large family. She has five siblings and her parents raised them in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Lee is also making history in Toyko. She is the first Hmong-American to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, as ESPN reported.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Sunisa Lee Is From a Blended Family & She Wasn’t Raised By Her Biological Father
Sunisa Lee was born in March 2003 and spent her childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, according to USA Gymastics. Sunisa’s mother, Yeev Thoj, named her after her favorite Thai soap opera actress, ESPN reported. She signed Sunisa up for gymnastics when Sunisa was a toddler after she started performing somersaults.
John Lee is not Sunisa’s biological father, but he raised her from the time she was a toddler. ESPN reports Yeev and John met when Sunisa was 2. John also had two children from his first marriage, Jonah and Shyenne. Shyenne and Sunisa are only 12 days apart and as ESPN reported, their classmates sometimes mistook them for twins.
Sunisa later chose to take John’s last name, Lee, as her own, even though Yeev and John never legally married, according to ESPN. But even though Yeev and John never officially tied the knot, Yeev does list her relationship status as “married” on Facebook.
The couple added three more children after they got together. Sunisa’s younger siblings are named Evionn, Lucky and Noah. According to USA Gymnastics, Evionn is also involved in the sport.
Large families are a trend on the current gymnastics team. Jordan Chiles has four older siblings. Grace McCallum is one of six children. Simone Biles has three full biological siblings, including sisters Adria, Ashley and older brother Tevin. She was raised with two more brothers in Texas and her biological mother, Shanon, has two younger children.
2. Sunisa Lee’s Parents Were Both Immigrants From Laos
Sunisa Lee’s parents were born in Laos. Both John and Yeev were part of large Hmong families. The Hmong are an ethnic group of people that traces its roots back several thousand years to China, the Hmong American Center explains. Large groups of Hmong people now live in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
The Hmong people fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War, according to the Hmong American Center. John Lee’s father was among those who fought in the war. When the war was over, the Hmong people faced retaliation for siding with the United States.
As the Star Tribune reported, John and Yeev’s families escaped Laos by “making the dangerous trek across the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand.” Many refugees later found safe haven in the United States. Minnesota has a Hmong population of about 80,000 people, the Star Tribune reports.
Yeev Thoj told ESPN that she was 12 when she arrived in Minnesota in 1987. She said she had been “excited to wear jeans” and thought the grocery store was “magic.”
Yeev and John had planned to bring the entire family to Japan to watch Sunisa compete at the Olympics. They told ESPN they had planned to visit Thailand and Laos once the Games were over but the pandemic has delayed those plans.
3. John Lee Was Partially Paralyzed in 2019
The Lee family has faced struggles in the last few years. As Heavy previously reported, John Lee was partially paralyzed due to an accident in August 2019.
He was helping a neighbor trim a tree when he fell off the ladder, People reported. John hurt his spinal cord, fractured ribs and broke his wrist in the fall and became paralyzed from the chest down, the Star Tribune reported.
But John Lee has fought to improve his physical situation. He was in the arena in June 2021 when Sunisa won a spot on the Olympic team. USA Today reported it was the first time since his fall that he was able to attend one of Sunisa’s competitions in person. He told the outlet, “It means a lot. Especially now that Sunisa is getting close to the end of her (elite) gymnastics career and I’m able to come and watch it. It means a great deal.” Sunisa shared a photo from that meet alongside her parents on Twitter.
4. Family Reunions Often Include More Than 300 Relatives
Sunisa Lee has a massive support system in Minnesota. Her father has 10 siblings, the Star Tribune reported, and they all live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
The outlet reported that family reunions typically include about 300 relatives. Yeev Thoj’s side of the family isn’t as large but the Star Tribune reported they live nearby as well.
The large family group is very supportive of each other. Family members helped to pay for Sunisa’s gymnastics lessons, according to the Star Tribune. The family also put on a big party on July 3 to wish Sunisa luck before the Olympics.
Yeev has likely leaned on that extended family network as she watches Sunisa at the Olympics. She told KMSP-TV that the competitions make her nervous. “When [Sunisa] does her routine, I usually hold my breath. I really don’t like to watch it.”
5. Sunisa Lee Lost Family Members to COVID-19
The year-long delay before the Tokyo Olympics was very challenging for the Lee family. In the summer of 2020, she lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19. They died within two weeks of each other, the New York Times reported.
These were relatives Sunisa was very close with as they used to babysit her when she was a child, according to Good Housekeeping. The outlet reported that Lee’s uncle was a Hmong shaman and “had helped heal her hurt foot with hot ginger and other herbal medicines.” She had to say her goodbyes over Zoom.
Sunisa also became sick in July 2020 and was worried she had the coronavirus. She told the New York Times that she had a high fever, a sore throat and a terrible headache. Luckily, the test came back negative; Sunisa didn’t have COVID-19. But she said she was scared of getting her father sick. Sunisa told the Times her immediate family slept on mattresses on the first floor of the house while she recovered just in case.