Sunisa Lee takes a break during practice Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, Minn. Sunisa spends up to eight hours a day at the gym. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

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With steely determination and a swan’s grace, Sunisa Lee has flipped, twisted, vaulted, twirled, sprung and landed gold, silver and bronze for the United States the past two weeks at the Tokyo Olympics.

But Suni Lee’s done more than win medals. Atop the biggest stage in global sports, the 18-year-old has lifted America’s Hmong community on her strong shoulders, casting an important light on the triumphs and struggles of Hmong people — a compelling American story that few Americans know.

Hmong people began arriving in the United States nearly 50 years ago, refugees from America’s wars in Southeast Asia. They fought for America in the so-called Secret War in Laos, funded by the CIA. As many as 30,000 to 40,000 Hmong were killed in that fighting

When the United States abandoned those conflicts, the Hmong were targeted for annihilation for aiding the Americans. Many of those who survived and escaped — including Lee’s parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj — worked to rebuild their lives in the Twin Cities. 

The region now boasts 66,000 people of Hmong ancestry, including athletes, business leaders, artists and politicians. Hmong heritage is rich in the Twin Cities, and yet it’s been overshadowed by the stereotypes and biases of people who’ve never understood the Hmong experience.

Stories in the media, popular culture and school history books do not represent our complete history, complex cultures and rituals. They rarely speak to our resilience as people who survived genocides and have had to fight again against COVID-19 and the reality of anti-Asian hate.

We all know it. Lee has spoken of her close family members dying from COVID-19 and how Asian hate has impacted her. I can tell you a story about my 7-year-old son being harassed and told to go back to China.

But Lee’s success at the Olympics is shifting the worldview of Hmong people — and among Hmong people.

The world is finally listening with positive intentions to learn about us. Google has reported a spike in search trends for Hmong since the start of the Tokyo Olympics.

Her gold medal win has also sparked the imagination of Hmong people everywhere, particularly girls, that they can walk (or flip) on their own paths, even ones that seem frivolous at first.

Nearly 300 people joined Sunisa Lee’s family at an early morning watch party in Oakdale. Organizers for the event did not expect such a large turnout. The event started early, but on top of the large crowd that had already gathered before the competition, more people trickled in throughout the morning. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Growing up, our parents wanted us to be doctors, dentists, lawyers, and engineers. To be something such as an athlete outside of those specific professions wasn’t understood and supported.

Hmong parents prioritize education over extracurricular activities such as gymnastics. The idea of voluntarily doing something for the love of it — like Lee’s passion for gymnastics — simply wasn’t an option for earlier generations of Hmong children, especially girls.

Traditional Hmong parents were not supportive of these kinds of activities because there was little money and honor in a sport — and besides, you couldn’t find a husband on a balance beam or tennis court.

That world is shifting, thanks to Lee and the untold numbers of people who helped her — the coaches, the nurturing parents who built Lee a balance beam out of wood because they could not afford one, the Hmong community that purchased egg rolls and T-shirts in fundraisers to pay for lessons and Minnesotans who embraced Hmong people with a welcoming spirit as they built new lives here.

It has not been easy. But the conversation is changing. Hmong people are shaping it. And Suni Lee, standing on the shoulders of past generations, is lifting all of us higher.

Ka Vang is the director of community engagement and impact for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. She grew up in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.