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Nancy Yang What Suni Lee's Olympics means for America's Hmong community

Lee has elevated a community that has for decades felt invisible and forgotten.

When gymnast Sunisa "Suni" Lee stepped out on the global stage at the Tokyo Olympics, she wasn’t just representing Team USA. She was also representing the Hmong community around the world. And the world took notice when she soared to the top of the podium Thursday, winning the gold medal in the women’s all-around competition.

With her all-around gold medal, Lee became the first Asian American to claim that prestigious title and the fifth consecutive American woman to accomplish the feat, following in the footsteps of Carly Patterson at the 2004 Athens Games, Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Simone Biles in 2016. Lee has now vaulted into the pantheon of legendary U.S. gymnasts.

Since the start of the Olympics, Google has reported a spike in search trends for “Hmong.”

Her win is being celebrated across the U.S., but it’s especially meaningful for the Hmong community. Lee, of St. Paul, Minn., is the first Hmong American Olympian.

Since the start of the Olympics, Google has reported a spike in search trends for “Hmong.” And among the top trending questions related to Lee after her all-around win was “What is Hmong descent?”

All of a sudden, Hmong people are center stage. People are finally interested in learning more about the Hmong community. Hmong people do not regularly see themselves in national media stories or celebrated as part of the national conversation. Lee has elevated a community that has for decades felt invisible and forgotten by America.

“I can’t find the words to express how happy we are, how important that was to me and my family and to the whole Hmong community throughout the world,” her father, John Lee, told The Associated Press.

Hmong people — an ethnic group with roots in China — have been in the United States for more than 45 years, but their story largely remains unknown in the wider population.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong in Laos were recruited to aid U.S. forces fighting Southeast Asian Communists in what has become known as the "Secret War." An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Hmong soldiers lost their lives in the war. (Around 58,000 American soldiers are believed to have been killed.)

But after the United States withdrew from Laos, Communist forces retaliated against the Hmong for being American allies. Thousands of Hmong people had to flee their war-ravaged homes, making the treacherous journey on foot to neighboring Thailand. Many died of disease, exposure, starvation or drowning while crossing the Mekong River. Scores of Hmong families eventually resettled in other countries, including the United States.

Today, California and Minnesota are home to the largest Hmong populations in the country. Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina also have sizable Hmong communities.

To this very day I run into people who have no idea why the Hmong are even in the United States. They have no idea the role we played in American history.

I’m a Hmong American who was born and raised in Minnesota. I grew up in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has the largest urban Hmong population in the nation and yet to this very day I run into people who have no idea why the Hmong are even in the United States. They have no idea the role we played in American history.

In Minnesota, it was just in 2019 — about 44 years after the first Hmong family’s arrival there — that a new state holiday was approved recognizing Hmong veterans of the “Secret War:” “May 14 of each year is designated as Hmong Special Guerilla Units Remembrance Day in honor of Southeast Asians, Americans, and their allies who served, suffered, sacrificed, or died in the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War in the years 1961 to 1975 in support of the armed forces of the United States.”

But with Lee’s rise, things are hopefully changing.

Lee’s historic rise also marks a cultural shift for the next generation of Hmong athletes — particularly for Hmong girls and women. Because they’ve suffered so much trauma and sacrificed so much for their children, many Hmong refugee parents have stressed education over extracurriculars, seeing little career potential in sports. And many Hmong girls have been discouraged from even playing sports.

“When I was Suni's age, we weren't allowed to actually participate in high school sports, much less activities that were occurring in middle school or elementary schools. Girls were thought of as children to be loved for sure, but as being in the home and assisting with families,” Dr. MayKao Hang, dean of the Morrison Family College of Health at the University of St. Thomas, told MPR News earlier this month.

Lee’s progress, though, opens the door. And it highlights the importance of letting children pursue their dreams.

Last year, I covered a meet-and-greet for Lee in St. Paul while she was training for the Olympics. It was in the middle of a snowstorm but that didn’t stop Hmong fans from making the trek to meet one of their own, one who looks and sounds like them, and whose family history mirrors their own.

I asked the mother of an 11-month-old girl why they drove out for a photo opportunity with the future Olympic champion. Her answer reflects why Lee is already such a Hmong female icon.

“I want [my daughter] to know that she has many, many opportunities,” Pakou Moua told me. “I want her to know that she has someone who followed her dreams and worked hard to achieve her goals.”

Congrats, Suni. You did it. Your Hmong brothers and sisters are so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished for yourself, for your family and for our community.