U.S. gymnast Sunisa “Suni” Lee, originally from St. Paul Minnesota, is proving she’s a force to be reckoned with at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The 18-year-old credits her success to the support of her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj.
While Lee’s entire family is cheering her on from home, as coronavirus restrictions in Tokyo prevented any athlete from bringing their parents to watch the summer games in person, Thoj is thrilled to watch her daughter compete on the international stage. Lee is the first Hmong American to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
“It’s pretty amazing that she actually made it this far,” Yeev said on the TODAY show. “I’m just super proud that she actually made it.”
NBC’s Olympics coverage has heavily covered the inspiring story of Lee’s father, who became partially paralyzed after a fall in 2019, her mother also has also overcome adversity in order to raise Lee and her four siblings.
Here’s what you need to know about Sunisa Lee’s mother, Yeev Thoj:
1. Yeev Thoj Named Sunisa After Her Favorite Thai Soap Actress
When Thoj welcomed her first child, she named her Sunisa, after her favorite Thai soap star, and gave a Hmong middle name, which she shortened to the initial N on documents, per ESPN.
The reason Thoj replaced her middle name with an initial was a result of years of her name being mispronounced. “Yeev” is actually pronounced, “Yeng,” and she didn’t want the frustration for her American-born child.
Before COVID-19 hit, John Lee and Thoj were planning a trip to bring Sunisa to see Laos, their homeland. “We really wanted the kids to see life there,” John Lee said. “It’s not as easy in Laos as it is here, where they have everything.”
“A lot of people don’t understand Hmong people or that we went through a really rough life to get here to the United States,” he continued. “Many groups of Asians get lumped together. Did you see the movie with Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino? It was based on the Hmong people, and even still no one knows. Maybe because of Sunisa, people might know us.”
2. Thoj & John Lee Never Legally Married, But They Share 5 Children Together
While Thoj is Lee’s biological mother, John Lee, who was divorced with two kids, Jonah and Shyenne, when he first met Lee’s mother, per ESPN. At the time, Lee was 2 years old. Together, Thoj and Lee welcome three more children, Evionn, Lucky, and Noah.
As for why the elite gymnastic took her father’s surname, “She wanted his last name,” Thoj said.
“The Hmong here are very proud to be American,” Sia Lo, an attorney and a member of Lee’s extended family told the Star Tribune, per NPR. “We hope all of America is proud of Suni. What she’s achieved showcases what is possible here in the United States.”
3. Thoj Came to America at Age 12
Like John Lee, Thoj was born in Laos. In 1987, at age 12, Thoj, along with her mother and sister, arrived in St. Paul. “We went to a grocery store, and I thought it was magic,” Thoj recalled to ESPN. “Vanilla ice cream in a box. Starburst. And girls wore jeans instead of skirts. I was so excited to wear jeans.”
Thoj, along with many Hmong people who fled to Thailand as refugees, settled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Despite the 3:45 a.m. local time start, the entire Hmong community has gotten together in Oakland, Minnesota to cheer Lee on as she competes for gold in Tokyo.
ESPN reported, “The Twin Cities boasts the largest and most organized Hmong population in a metropolitan area, and John jokes that he and Yeev are related to most of them and connected to them all.”
4. Thoj’s Sister Died of COVID-19
Lee’s family was hit hard by the pandemic. Not only did Lee contemplate quitting the sport after the Olympics were delayed due to coronavirus, but she also lost one of her biggest fans to the disease. Her mother’s sister died from COVID-19, as did her father’s brother, who was a Hmong shaman. They died within two weeks of one another
Due to coronavirus, Lee could only attend their funerals via Zoom.. “It’s been a tough year, but I’m super proud of myself,” Lee said. “After COVID and quarantine, I was unmotivated because we had so much time off and I felt I wasn’t good enough anymore. But now I’ve been a lot better mentally, and you can see it in my gymnastics.”
Despite suffering a broken foot, Lee told Elle she used the extra year to get even stronger on the uneven bars and more consistent overall. “I just didn’t want to see myself fall back,” she said. “I don’t want to disappoint my coaches or my parents.”
5. Thoj Gets So Nervous Watching Lee Compete, ‘I Usually Hold My Breath’
Like so many moms seen on the TV screen watching their child compete at the Olympics, Thoj struggles both physically and emotionally as her daughter performs her routines.
After Lee clinched her spot on Team USA’s Women’s gymnastics team alongside Simone Biles, Grace McCallum, and Jordan Chiles, Thoj cried.
“When she made it, we were all in tears, cheering for her,” Thoj told Fox 9. Her father was also in shock. “I knew that she had something special…I always push her to do her best, but we didn’t expect that she would actually do it,” said John Lee.
Thoj added, “When she does her routine, I usually hold my breath. I really don’t like to watch it.”