As Sunisa Lee celebrates her gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around final today, the Team USA star has become an instant household name – but who is the 18-year-old gymnast to take first place in her first-ever Olympic Games?
Hailing from Minnesota, Sunisa is the daughter of Laotian refugees who fled the country in the wake of the Vietnam War – and she is also the first Hmong American to represent the United States at the Olympics.
Her road to the Games was not an easy one, with the star enduring through personal tragedy after her father was paralyzed in a freak accident in 2019 that left him in a wheelchair.
But both her parents, who were unable to accompany her to the Games due to COVID rules, excitedly cheered her on from home as she beat the match on Thursday, while her mother was moved to tears when Sunisa was announced the winner.
Sunisa Lee celebrates her gold medal in the all-round final women’s gymnastics today
The 18-year-old defeated silver medalist Rebeca Andrade of Brazil (right) and bronze medalist Angelina Melnikova of Russia (left)
Minnesota native Sunisa stunned the judges at the Ariake Gymnastics Center today
At just 18 years old, Sunisa – who has just graduated from high school – is the youngest member of the team
Sunisa grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where her parents settled to pursue the American dream.
Her parents are both refugees from Laos. They are members of the Hmong ethnic group, who fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War – and were killed by tens of thousands both by opposing forces and their own government after the US withdrew.
According to the Star Stand, her mother and father, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were still children when their families fled Laos in the 1970s and were the first to end up in refugee camps in Thailand.
“When the US withdrew from Laos, the war was not over,” her father explained. “People had to go to Thailand for their safety and a chance at a better life.”
They eventually made their way to Minnesota, home to about 80,000 Hmong people – who see her as their “ambassador to the world.”
Sunisa – known to friends and family as Suni – grew up jumping and tumbling around the family’s house.
She went to the metal bars that held up a clothesline to swing, tumbled and flipped around the house, using a wooden beam her father had made to work on her balance.
When she was six, her parents enrolled her in classes at the Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, where she still trains today with coaches Jess Graba and Alison Lim, who own the gym.
“She was a very active kid, she was always tumbling around,” her Aunt Cecelia Lee said. “But who could have known it would lead to this?”
The star’s parents (pictured with her father) are both Laotian refugees who fled the country as children in the wake of the Vietnam War
Her father, John Lee, is pictured celebrating his daughter in a wheelchair at home; he has been partially paralyzed since a bizarre fall in 2019
Her father also suffered broken ribs and a broken wrist when he suffered a spinal cord injury in 2019
Sunisa’s friends and family celebrate the moment she won gold
Her parents, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, embraced the emotional moment
She has managed to stay focused even when disaster struck her family.
In 2019, her father was pruning a neighbor’s tree branches when he fell to the ground and suffered serious injuries, including broken ribs, a broken wrist and, worst of all, a spinal cord injury.
He remains partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
But even when her parents were forced to stay home when their daughter flew to Tokyo — where the Olympics banned all relatives of athletes — they still showed her endless support.
Her father reportedly gives her pep talks before every game, and has done so via FaceTime during the Olympics.
Her mother, meanwhile, encourages her, even when she struggles to watch.
“I’m getting so nervous,” she said. ‘My heart is beating so fast. She did so well in the Olympics, I cried every time she finished a part.’