Sunisa Lee thanks her family and supporters following a celebratory parade in her honor. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Thousands of cheering fans lined White Bear Avenue in Maplewood on Sunday for a parade in honor of Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee, and politicians including Governor Tim Walz celebrated her success at the just-completed Tokyo games.

Lee won bronze, silver, and gold medals as part of the women’s U.S. gymnastics team. She was the first ever Hmong American to compete in the games, and the first to win a medal.

In his comments, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter put Sunisa’s victory in the context of growing examples of prejudice against Asian Americans. 

“It’s poetic that this opportunity to celebrate came to us through a daughter of our Hmong community,” said Carter. “Because our Hmong community, alongside all of our Asian American communities, have been questioned over the last several years. We have seen [anti-]Asian hate on the rise.” 

Supporters cheer for Sunisa Lee along White Bear Avenue in Maplewood, Minn. during a parade for the Olympic gold medalist on Sunday, August 8, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Governor Walz also commended the Hmong community’s resilience and contribution to Minnesota’s rich history. “Every day that you have been here, Minnesota has gotten better,” he said.

Lee, along with her mom Yeev Thoj and sister Shyenne Lee, rode in the parade atop a giant St. Paul Fire Department hook and ladder engine, adorned with American flags and escorted by police cruisers. Lee had the gold medal from the women’s all-around competition proudly draped around her neck, and every now and then she formed the shape of a heart with her hands, eliciting wild cheers from supporters lining the parade route. 

Kai Lee (from left), Tou Lee, Houa Lee, and Jerry Lee cheer as Sunisa Lee passes them during a parade on Sunday. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Following the parade, hundreds of family, friends, and supporters packed around an outdoor stage at the Aldrich Ice Arena. 

“This is truly amazing–it’s not like anything I ever expected,” Lee said when she took to the stage. “I really feel all of the love and support that all of you have given me.”

The program featured artists and community leaders, showcasing the richness of the largest Hmong community in the U.S. Among the performers were the Celestials Dance Team, a Hmong dance group from St. Paul, and award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang.

Ben Hovland is a Korean Adoptee and is the multimedia producer for Sahan Journal. His photo and video reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, BBC, and Minnesota Public Radio.