The story of Suni Lee’s rise as Olympic gold medalist in many ways reflects the larger struggles of the Hmong people as one of the country’s most marginalized Asian American groups.
Lee, 18, winner of the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, is the first Hmong American Olympian.
Like the story of the estimated 309,000 Hmong who have settled in the US, her journey has been painful and turbulent.
“We were nomadic and we didn’t have a place to belong and I feel like we fought adversity,” said Koua Yang, athletic director at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where many Hmong refugees settled in the 1970s. “We were warriors throughout history, and here we are in the United States living the American dream. She epitomizes all that … All the struggles.”
Lee’s path to Olympic glory has been pockmarked by injuries, the loss of an aunt and uncle to Covid-19 and a 2019 fall that left her father, John, paralyzed from the waist down.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with Covid and my family and everything else,” Lee told reporters at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
The Hmong people arrived in the US in the ’70s and ’80s; the largest share is in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
During the Vietnam War, Hmong soldiers were recruited by the CIA. Thousands of Hmong died and others forced to flee when the US withdrew from Vietnam and essentially abandoned the ethnic group.
The Hmong were recruited into the Secret War, a CIA-backed war in the country of Laos. Hmong General Vang Pao was recruited to enlist his people to fight against the Laotian and North Vietnamese military. The Hmong fought and suffered losses of 30,000 to 40,000 of their people.
Many Hmong fled to the jungle and eventually to refugee camps in Thailand. In the ’70s and ’80s a large number of them settled and built a thriving community in Minnesota, where Lee’s father would one day erect a makeshift balance beam in the backyard for her because of the family’s modest means.
“It’s a beautiful story that just illustrates the struggle of human beings and a people and now we get to celebrate,” Yang said.
Lee’s historic performance Thursday was an epochal moment for the Hmong people in America.
“She made all of us proud,” said Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.
“What’s really important is you have a daughter of a refugee representing the United States of America at the Olympics. She not only made the Hmong people proud but I think the United States of America should be proud of her accomplishment as well.”
In Minnesota early Thursday, John Lee pumped his fist in the air as he watched his daughter reach the pinnacle of her sport.
Members of the Hmong community had gathered at packed restaurants and banquet halls as early as early as 5 a.m. local time to watch her performance on television, Xiong said.
“And just think that 40 to 45 years ago many of the people that were involved in the settlement didn’t believe the Hmong would be able to thrive and survive in America, coming from the jungle of Laos to urban America,” Xiong said “And yet if you look at these younger generations, they have far exceeded our expectations.”
And Lee’s victory comes at a time of mounting reports of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans who have been verbally and physically assaulted during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“She reminds us that we are Americans — all of us,” Yang said.
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