MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Friday is Suni Lee Day in Minnesota, and the state is celebrating its Olympic gold medalist.
The 18-year-old gymnast from St. Paul won the women’s all-around gymnastic competition on Thursday, becoming the first Hmong American to participate in the summer games and win a gold medal.
While her family wasn’t able to watch her in person in Tokyo due to COVID-19 restrictions, they cheered and wept tears of joy as they watched her compete at a viewing party in Oakdale, surrounded by friends and fans.
Lee’s Olympic story began at the Midwest Gymnastics Center, the gym in Little Canada where she started training at age 6. From the start, she showed promise.
Her first coach, Punnarith Koy, said that he had trouble controlling his tears after he watched Lee become an Olympic champion.
“I came to [the gym]…made eye contact with the other coach that saw me go through the entire evolution of Suni at a young age, and we hugged, and we started talking and I couldn’t control it,” he said. “It was a very emotional time, very cathartic.”
Koy said that he texted Lee after the all-around championships, telling her that her performance was great. “I told her that she was my hero,” he said.
The Twin Cities have the highest concentration of Hmong citizens in the U.S., at about 66,000. Many came to Minnesota in 1975 after war ravaged their homeland in Laos.
Hmong history can be traced back thousands of years in China. In fact, their farmers are credited with being among the first to cultivate rice and spread it throughout Asia.
The Minnesota Historical Society has additional information on the legacy of Hmong in Minnesota.