At an early morning watch party July 29, 2021, Sunisa Lee's family and supporters exploded with joy after she won an Olympic gold medal for the women's —becoming the first Hmong American to do so. Sunisa won in the women’s gymnastics all-around event. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Surrounded by nearly 300 supporters, Sunisa Lee’s parents joked that they would hold their breath Thursday during their daughter’s history-making performance at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. At the end, a gold medal secured for the first Hmong American Olympic athlete, they finally exhaled—and let out a mighty cheer.

Sunisa, 18, won the women’s gymnastics all-around event in a tense competition with athletes from Brazil and Russia. Along the way, she overcame the distraction of seeing her better-known teammate, Simone Biles, pull out of the competition. 

“It doesn’t feel like real life,” Sunisa said in a TV interview after receiving her medal.

Despite not being able to join Sunisa in Tokyo because of COVID-19 restrictions, her family celebrated her win with the local community. A crowd gathered at Brothers Event Center in Oakdale at 5:30 a.m. to support their hometown champion. 

Sunisa’s father, John Lee, told Sahan Journal he had been hosting watch parties with his family at their home in Saint Paul. Thursday morning, the Lee family opened up their watch party to the public.

“I want to show Sunisa that everybody in Saint Paul and in the community is rooting for her. I hope that doesn’t put more pressure on her,” John said in an interview before the competition.

Elle Lee, the owner of Brothers Event Center and wife of John’s relative, spent the night setting up the space, not expecting such a large turnout. Rows of chairs were set up in front of the livestream, which was being projected onto a large screen. 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. 

In front of the first row where Sunisa’s parents sat, a group of younger attendees sat on three straw mats laid out on the floor. Among them were Kate Malinowski, Darah Ostrom, and Ayden Her, who grew up training alongside Sunisa on a Level 4 team in Minnesota. 

“We just progressed through the levels together. She obviously progressed much more than me,” Malinoski, 18, joked. “It’s amazing.”

Ayden, 18, who is the daughter of Representative Kaohly Her (DFL–Saint Paul), remembered how hard Sunisa worked in the gym. She recalled feeling a similar excitement for Sunisa in their previous competitions together. This time, a lot more people were watching.

“The Hmong population is really small throughout the whole world, and to have this kind of representation for our people is a really big feat,” Ayden said.

The three gymnasts were especially impressed by Sunisa’s vault performance. Sunisa is most known for her skills in the uneven bar event, but in the all-around competition she stood out in all four rotations: vault, uneven bar, beam, and floor.

Sunisa had jumped to the lead by the third rotation, and after scoring a 13.7 in the floor exercise—in a sport where a one-tenth margin could make all the difference—a gold medal was clearly in sight. 

Ayden, Malinowski, and Ostrom said they had no words.

Just before the medal ceremony, Sunisa’s sister Shyenne Lee was able to catch the new champion over Facetime. A cheering crowd circled around her as she held her phone up to show Sunisa the party.

“It’s amazing that she’s the first Hmong ever,” said Sunisa’s mom Yeev Thoj. “It’s a huge thing for the community and for our families.”

“Because of the time difference, it’s so hard to communicate with her,” John said. “But today, it’s all worth it.”

John, who uses a wheelchair after an accident in 2019 left him partially paralyzed, added: “Right now if I were walking, I think I would do a backflip myself.”

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Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...