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Gold medal draped around her neck, Sunisa Lee rode high atop a fire truck through the streets of St. Paul's East Side on Sunday as thousands gathered to celebrate the 18-year-old gymnast's return home after a stunning Olympic performance in Tokyo.

As Lee waved to the crowd, flanked by her mother, sister and several American flags, 8-year-old Esme Xiong flashed a homemade sign up toward her champion. "I'm a Hmong girl and I can be anything I want," it read, drawn with red, white and blue markers reminiscent of Lee's leotard.

"We thought it was very inspiring to her," said Xiong's mother, Pang Vang, "not just as a girl — but a Hmong girl."

"I can do a flip underwater!" Xiong proudly declared of her own gymnastic prowess.

“We didn't ever see anyone like us. It was just kind of cool to see someone locally be in the Olympics and win gold. It's more special now.”
Gaoly Yang

The parade began shortly after 3 p.m., a jubilant homecoming to mark Lee's profound achievement as the first Hmong American Olympic gold medal winner in history and a victory that has reverberated around the country. Members of the crowd beamed with pride as Lee passed. They whistled and waved American flags, clapped and cheered as they held up homemade signs and phones to record a glimpse of Lee.

"We love you Suni!" a group shouted.

Following Lee were about a dozen girls from Midwest Gymnastics, Lee's former gym, walking on their hands.

"These girls are so proud to be affiliated with her and to see her success," said their coach, Punnarith Koy.

Lee won Olympic gold on July 29 in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics gymnastics individual all-around competition. The St. Paul native is the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics and the first Asian American woman to win the gymnastics all-around. She also took home a bronze medal for women's uneven bars and a silver for artistic team all-around.

Many in attendance Sunday spoke of what Lee's victory on the world stage meant for Hmong and Asian American communities.

"It's a big deal," said Gaoly Yang, 36, of Maplewood. Being first-generation Hmong American, Yang felt a special pride from Lee's accomplishments, which is why she brought along her family, she said. Her 7-year-old daughter Bailey had attended gymnastics classes at the same gym as Lee. She held a sign that said, "Suni is #1."

"We didn't ever see anyone like us," Yang said. "It was just kind of cool to see someone locally be in the Olympics and win gold. It's more special now."

For an older generation, Lee is a trailblazer. Shery Vang, 38, of Brooklyn Park, said as a kid she was not allowed to play volleyball or go on a choir trip because she was a girl. Seeing Lee and her supportive family is significant for her and her teenage daughters.

"She's opening the doors for so many young Hmong women," Vang said, wearing a colorful modern Hmong dress and holding gold balloons that spelled out "Sunisa." "It's amazing. It's a very proud moment for the Hmong community."

Mee Xiong Yang, 52, of Woodbury hurried back a day early from a trip to Colorado to celebrate Lee, waving a large American flag as Lee passed.

"Go Hmong girl, go Hmong girl," she shouted.

She and her family touted red, white and blue balloons and a sign that read "We love Suni," in Hmong.

"We're a little Suni crazed," said Yang's sister, Moslais Xiong, who teaches at Phalen Lake Elementary, which is home to a Hmong immersion program.

Another sister, May Lee Xiong, the principal of the school, sported red, white and blue nails with Lee's name. "We couldn't miss this. It was monumental," she said, predicting there will soon be an influx of little girls across Minnesota and the world joining gymnastics and looking to follow in Lee's footsteps.

Spectators along the White Bear Ave. parade route.
Spectators along the White Bear Ave. parade route.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

The mile-long parade concluded outside the Aldrich Ice Arena in Maplewood, with Lee and her family ducking at the top of the fire truck as it barely cleared branches under a tree. At an outdoor stage decorated with bright blue balloons spelling out Lee's name, Gov. Tim Walz thanked Lee's parents for raising her.

"After 18 months of not having much to cheer about, thank you for giving us joy," said Walz. "Congratulations."

Her mother gave an emotional thank you to the crowd.

"Thank you to everybody that's here," her father added. "She finally made her dream come true."

The crowd roared with cheers when the gymnast took the stage.

"This is truly amazing. It's not like anything I ever expected," said Lee. "I'm so overwhelmed."

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036

Alex Chhith • 612-673-4759

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Lee was the first Asian American gold medal winner. She was the first Asian American woman to win the gymnastics all-around gold.