Suni Lee and her family were surprised Sunday with a bust of Lee at Phalen Regional Park in St. Paul. Credit: Angelina Katsanis | Star Tribune

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Suni Lee stared in awe at the sculpture unveiled on a sunny Sunday morning at Phalen Regional Park—a bronze bust of the St. Paul native that overlooks Lake Phalen.

The Hmong American Olympic champion said she was grateful to have inspired a community she’s proud to be a part of.

“I wouldn’t be here without you guys truly, selling the T-shirts and coming to fundraisers and helping everything even when my family was at my lowest,” Lee said.

The unveiling, which was a surprise to Lee and her parents, took place as part of “Sunisa Lee Day” in Minnesota to honor her achievements and character. About 100 people attended the ceremony, including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan and City Council members.

Blake School art teacher Seexeng Lee, who sculpted the bust, said he was inspired by Suni Lee’s impact as a Hmong woman and wanted the sculpture to promote the Hmong community. He worked with St. Paul Parks and Recreation to complete the project and obtained a family photo from her parents as a reference for the work.

Suni Lee won three medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021—gold in the all-around, silver in the team competition and a bronze in the uneven bars—after becoming the first Hmong American gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.

Sunisa Lee practices on the floor Feb. 5 at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada. Lee has dreamed of making the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team and hopes to compete in Tokyo this summer. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The sculpture was completed in three weeks and cost $33,000. St. Paul City Council Member Nelsie Yang obtained $15,000 from neighborhood STAR funds, and Seexeng Lee came up with the remaining $18,000, St. Paul Parks Director Andy Rodriguez said. Seexeng Lee said he solicited donations on Facebook and from businesses and put up some of his own money.

Suni Lee is only the second female athlete to be recognized within the St. Paul park system, Rodriguez said. A ball field at the Dunning Sports Complex is named for Toni Stone, who grew up in St. Paul and became the first woman to play on a majors-level professional baseball team.

“Not only will this new piece of art honor Suni and all that she has accomplished, but it will also help inspire the next generation of St. Paul’s young people to pursue their dreams,” Rodriguez said.

Not only did Suni Lee dazzle the St. Paul community on the electronic screens, Flanagan said, she also showed resilience in facing other challenges—like competing at empty venues during the height of COVID-19 and helping her family when her father was paralyzed in 2021.

Carter said he saw Lee’s character when she returned to the Twin Cities after the Olympics. When crowds gathered at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to welcome her home, she took the time to sign autographs and take pictures with the children who came to greet her.

“The most incredible thing that happened that day is that our champion, who had just been on an international flight and just returned from the Olympics, who had the weight of the world and the eyes of the world on her, was the last person to leave the airport,” the mayor said.

Simone Biles hugs Suni Lee during the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics after Biles withdrew from the meet. The two Olympic gold medalists are returning to competition after lengthy layoffs at a meet outside of Chicago in August, the start of a run-up to the world championships and 2024 Olympics. Credit: Gregory Bull | Associated Press

Lee is currently training for the 2024 Olympics. The 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be held at Target Center in Minneapolis next June.

Seexeng Lee’s daughter Nadia Lee, 21, said she was excited to watch Lee compete again and see how she continues to represent the Hmong community.

“I love that she represents our success and our ability for excellence and to be at the top,” Nadia Lee said.

Staff writer Laura Yuen contributed to this report.

Hannah Pinski is a Star Tribune summer intern from the University of Iowa.