Five-ring Circus

The Importance of Suni Lee’s Gold Medal to the Hmong Community

Friends and family of Sunisa Lee clap and cheer
Suni Lee’s family celebrates at a watch party in Minnesota. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Suni Lee, an American gymnast from St. Paul, Minnesota, won gold in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition on Thursday. Lee’s performance wasn’t just impressive for its athleticism and precision—it was also historic, as Lee is the first Hmong American to win an Olympic medal.

To get a sense of how the Hmong community in the U.S. is reacting to Lee’s win, Slate spoke with Phillipe Thao, the 25-year-old son of Hmong refugees and a writer and activist who advocates for social causes in the Hmong community in St. Paul. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Slate: How are you feeling right now?

Thao: I feel like I’ve been running on adrenaline. I’m still emotional from this morning. Me and all my friends and cousins have been texting and DMing each other and sending tweets and memes to one another. I think part of it is that with the pandemic, we haven’t been able to have any of our large cultural celebrations that are so important to the Hmong culture. And so this feels like the first celebration that we’ve been able to have. I’m on such a high.

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Can you describe the particular part of St. Paul that Suni Lee is from?

St. Paul, in general, has one of the largest concentrations of Hmong people in the country. I believe that in the state of Minnesota alone, there’s over 66,000 of us. Suni and her family live on the east side of St. Paul, which is also the same area that I live in. The east side of St. Paul is known for its large Hmong population, its large refugee and immigrant communities. It’s a very vibrant part of the city where you see a lot of immigrant businesses out on the streets. We even have our own Hmong market here.

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Are you typically a fan of the Olympics?

I think just like any other person, I watch it every four years. But with this one in particular, with Suni Lee as the first Hmong American Olympian, I became even more invested in it. And even two years ago, when she was still not qualified yet for the Olympics but working toward it, I started following her more closely, along with a lot of other folks in the Hmong community, just rallying around this Olympics potential.

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Two years ago was when you first heard of her?

Two, three years ago, there were talks about this young girl in St. Paul who was really good at gymnastics and who was most likely going to make the Olympics. So she’s been like a household name for the past few years. I think for me, and a lot of my other Hmong friends, we were just so excited to see someone like us be at the Olympics. This morning when she won her gold medal, I had never seen a Hmong figure celebrated that globally before, other than, like, [the actress] Brenda Song.

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Her family had rented out this Hmong event center in a St. Paul suburb, and a lot of Hmong folks from the community came in early this morning to watch it live with her immediate family there. I was petsitting, so I [couldn’t be there], but  it was just groundbreaking and poignant seeing the Hmong community crying tears of joy and celebrating something so monumental. It is a different kind of representation that I’ve never seen before. And I think it really speaks to the values of how the Hmong culture is a collective society. We support one another, even if we aren’t blood relatives.

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What would you say is the typical representation you’ve seen?

Because we’re a small ethnic minority from Southeast Asia, not many people have heard of us or even know what we are. There was the Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino, which a lot of Hmong folks don’t necessarily enjoy just because of its negative portrayals around gang violence in our culture. And other than that I grew up idolizing Brenda Song on the Disney Channel. She’s Hmong, and she was our only Hmong superstar that we had to look up to. So it’s pretty monumental seeing someone like Suni Lee come up. She speaks so openly about the Hmong culture and about our history in interviews that she does.

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What does this win mean for the Hmong community, apart from representation?

Our history is never taught in schools. When the CIA recruited us during the Vietnam War, they had this whole operation called the Secret War, which recruited a lot of people in Laos to help fight on behalf of the U.S. But then after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War, they abandoned the Hmong people there, which was the catalyst to all of us resettling to different countries. And so a lot of us feel left out and erased. Seeing Suni Lee perform and win a gold medal is just kind of this moment where we’re finally being seen. People are all of a sudden going to google it for the first time.

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People often observe that when you have very little representation of a community, which I think is fair to say here, there’s a lot of pressure on an individual person to be exceptional. Do you think that that is the case here?

One hundred percent. In some ways, I almost feel for Suni Lee because I can’t imagine how much stress that puts on a young woman, especially from a community that has pretty much been unseen. I think about that a lot with her. Suni Lee is just at the start of her career. I am curious to see how those pressures change, or how people’s perceptions change.

Is there any sort of culture of gymnastics among the Hmong?

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I don’t know for sure if there is a Hmong gym, or how big the gymnastics team here is, but I had several cousins who grew up doing gymnastics; I do think it’s popular among the Hmong community. And I think a big reason for that is Hmong people have always rallied around sports. Every summer, around the July 4 weekend, we have this large soccer tournament, which we call the freedom festival. It celebrates the time when the young people immigrated to Minnesota. And so it’s evolved over the years but now they have a soccer tournament, football tournament, and dance tournament all within the same weekend. And I think another part of it is that dancing is also a big part of Hmong culture, and if you compare traditional dancing, which utilizes acrobatics, to gymnastics, it’s very similar. So I think a lot of young Hmong folks gravitate towards gymnastics just because it’s so similar to a lot of the sports that we already play.

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I wonder if there’s going to be more people getting into it now. 

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Right? I can only imagine.

Is there anything else that you think people outside the community need to understand? 

I think just for Suni, you have to understand that she does come from a refugee family. In St. Paul, there is a large population that lives under the poverty line, and there are so many systems that work against Hmong folks here in the U.S. And gymnastics is a sport that demands a lot of time and a lot of money. So just the number of barriers that Suni and her family have had to break down just to go to the Olympics is really important to note. Because it’s not like she made it because of privilege, right? I think a lot of it is the love and support of her family. Within the Hmong culture, there is kind of the stigma where you have to pursue the typical doctor, lawyer careers as a way to make money because our parents sacrificed so much just for us to succeed here. So it’s incredible watching how her mom and dad have wholeheartedly supported her throughout her entire career. And I hope that really does inspire a lot of other Hmong parents in both families to let their children pursue their dreams.

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What’s the last moment you can think of that was like this for the Hmong community?

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this all day: When was the last time the Hmong community was so joyous or so unified over something like this? And I can’t think of anything, at least in my lifetime. The Hmong community has had to unify over tragedy more than celebratory moments. And I think that’s why it’s just been so overjoyed, especially here in St. Paul. Because we can’t really remember a time when we’ve rallied around something so positive. And not just here in St. Paul. We are people of diaspora. People from all over the U.S., from Laos, from France, are uniting over Suni Lee, even though their country isn’t represented. So I think that speaks to the power of Suni Lee’s Olympic win.

Are there going to be celebrations tonight?

I think so. We have several Hmong bars and Hmong sports bars. Hennessy is our drink of choice in the Hmong culture, so I’m sure there’s gonna be a lot of Hennessy shots tonight.

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