History will recognize Suni Lee as the first Hmong American to make a U.S. Olympic Team. And after her remarkable performance in Thursday's all-around gymnastics competition in Tokyo, the 18-year-old from St. Paul also will be remembered as a gold medalist.
As the Star Tribune's Rachel Blount reported in a must-read profile of Lee published before the Games, the U.S. is home to about 300,000 Hmong, and 80,000 of them live in Minnesota. It's a proud, tight-knit community that has enriched this state and especially the Twin Cities. And now it has produced a gold medal winner whose drive, skill and personality brought joy to an Olympics challenged by a global pandemic.
Family members told Blount that Lee would swing from the metal bars holding the clotheslines in her backyard and practice on a wooden balance beam crafted by her dad. Her high energy and indoor tumbling led her parents to enroll 6-year-old Suni in classes at Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada. It was a long way from the Olympics in Japan, but it was a start.
Fast-forward a dozen years, and Lee suddenly found herself being mentioned as America's best hope for an all-around gold medal when superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the competition on Tuesday, citing mental health concerns.
Lee acknowledged after winning gold that it was a lot to handle. "I was starting to put a little bit too much pressure on myself," Lee said. "Knowing that Simone was gone, I feel like people kind of put that pressure on me, that I had to come back with a medal. I tried not to think about it. [My coaches] told me to just focus on myself and do what I normally do, because that's when I compete the best.''
The strategy worked, and Lee added the gold to the silver medal she won in the team competition. With individual gymnastics events still to come, she might not be finished with podiums. We'll all be watching, and the cheers will be loudest in Minnesota.
"The Hmong here are very proud to be American,'' Sia Lo, a St. Paul attorney and part of Lee's extended family, told Blount. "We hope all of America is proud of Suni. What she's achieved showcases what is possible here in the United States.''