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World champion gymnast Suni Lee returned to St. Paul's East Side Thursday, this time with no gold medal around her neck, just a simple silver necklace with Olympic rings on it.

She was back at her alma mater, Battle Creek Elementary School, celebrating its shift to E-STEAM learning and a $50,000 Amazon donation, and there in the gym were reminders of where and with whom Lee first displayed her athletic prowess.

There was a net with yellow ropes tucked high in a corner. Rock-climbing wall panels. And in the crowd, along with the kids and their parents, and the district and school leaders, was her former gym teacher, Scott Richards.

"She was by far the best student I ever had," he said. "She hit the rocks so strong — from when she was tiny, just in kindergarten."

An arch of red, white and blue balloons served as a reminder of Lee's gold medal performance in Tokyo a year ago. She made history then as the first Asian woman to win the gymnastics all around, and she came home that summer to a parade where fans waved signs reading "Suni is #1" and "I'm a Hmong girl and I can be anything I want."

On Thursday, Lee was the surprise guest at a back-to-school event. To the 60-plus children seated on the floor in front of her, she said: "Embrace your community. Embrace the unique qualities that made you all different. Follow your dreams."

Then she posed for pictures before hugging a few of her favorite teachers.

Malina Xiong, her former third-grade teacher, was among the few adults in the room over whom the diminutive Lee now holds a size advantage — a fact the two often make light of, Xiong said.

She recalled how Lee would do flips with friends outside during recess and would take her advice to study hard — even if Xiong had to "get on her case."

Mary Romoser was Lee's science teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade. Lee always worked hard, she said, and always had a positive attitude, even on Mondays when she would arrive exhausted after weekend travels to gymnastic events.

"At one point, I said, 'So what are your hopes and dreams?'" Romoser said.

"I want to go to the Olympics," Lee replied.

On Thursday, after the two embraced, Romoser asked the same question again.

"Return to the Olympics," Lee said.

Romoser was wearing a T-shirt she picked up at a fundraiser before the 2021 Olympic trials, signed by Lee.

"She is one in a million," Romoser said. "It was an honor to have been able to get to know her and her family, and to teach her. It's a real privilege that I treasure."

Speaking with reporters later, Lee remembered her former gym teacher, "Mr. Richards." He always pushed her, she said, and would make her climb the rope even when she wasn't there for that purpose, or have her do more pull-ups than everyone else.

"He just always knew," Lee said. "I would always tell him, 'I'm going to go win the gold medal.' And he was, like, 'If anyone can do it, it's you.'"