Suni Lee, Olympic gold medalist, gave Minnesota a reason to smile again

  • Covers college basketball
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
  • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

St. Paul, Minn. — An hour before Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee rode down the street in her hometown parade on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, an enthusiastic, middle-aged man skipped along the road and screamed into his phone at his livestream audience.

“We are praying the rain stays away,” he said as he awaited the start of a parade to honor Lee’s achievement in St. Paul.

But then he paused.

“You know what? If it pours, it pours,” he said. “We are witnessing history.”

When Lee captured the gold medal in the all-around individual women’s gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics, she became an American icon and the first Hmong American woman to win a gold medal in the sport. She’s made national TV appearances and she now boasts 1.4 million followers on Instagram.

This week, she will enroll at Auburn, where she will be one of the most marketable collegiate athletes in the name, image and likeness era.

On Sunday, however, she was Sunisa Lee, the product of St. Paul’s eastside, a graduate of South St. Paul Secondary and a Hmong American superstar.

Her rise has put a spotlight on the Hmong community. More than 40 years ago, members of the Hmong community arrived in Minnesota as refugees, mostly from Laos where they are an ethnic minority. No metropolitan area in America has a larger concentration of Hmong Americans than the Twin Cities.

The visible pride of the Hmong community fueled the festive atmosphere that surrounded Lee’s parade, which was quickly organized to honor her prior to her departure for college.

Little girls who looked like her cried in their mothers’ arms as Lee — with the gold medal around her neck — waved at them from atop a slow-moving fire truck. Every phone was held high to take pictures. An elderly man, who told ESPN he’s proud to be Hmong and he’s proud of Lee, held a large American flag.

Due to the rapid change in her life since she won three medals (gold, silver and bronze) in Tokyo, Lee had the security of a visiting diplomat as she followed behind a line of dancers, young gymnasts from her hometown club, members of the Hmong community and politicians who greeted their constituents.

“Seeing one of our own people come out of the mud, as they say, to do what she did, it was amazing,” said St. Paul and Hmong resident Chee Moua Vang. “We were proud [when she won]. We were crying. We were cheering. She put us on the map, which is ironic because Hmong people don’t have a country of our own. So it means a lot.”

There were also dozens of “We love you Suni!” signs. People of all ages screamed for her. It seemed as if the entire state had crammed White Bear Avenue for Lee’s parade, which unfolded in the neighborhood that molded her. White Bear Avenue is home to a stretch of blue-collar businesses. There are strip malls with great restaurants adjacent to places that can fix your phone. The local library is across from an accounting business and a store that still sells clocks. A vacant lot has been turned into a weeknight hub for food trucks.

On the eastside of St. Paul, there is familiarity — albeit a familiarity that has waned throughout the Twin Cities.

There haven’t been many parties here since Prince died. Incidents of police brutality against unarmed Black men, including George Floyd, and civil unrest have changed the vibe. And when the camera crews left town after Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder in April, folks in the Twin Cities were left to find themselves again after a chaotic stretch.

You’d have to live here to get it. But friendships and relationships have been fractured over the last 18 months.

And that’s why Sunday mattered.

People of all backgrounds came out for Lee’s parade. The streets were decorated with diversity. Black, white, Asian and Hispanic men, women and children all stood next to one another and cheered for their favorite gold medalist.

“We needed this,” one woman said to the people around her.

She was right. Lee has given Minnesota a reason to smile again.

“On this planet, in this state, in this city, we’ve had a hard time,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter during Lee’s parade. “And we needed this opportunity to celebrate. And it’s poetic that this opportunity to celebrate came through a daughter of our Hmong community.”

Well, the prayers seemed to work because the rain skipped the parade. And just as Lee prepared to address the crowd from a nearby stage, the sun poked through the clouds.

A singer belted out Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and then the Olympian grabbed the microphone and tried to contain her emotions. She said it was difficult to speak.

But then she found her poise — the same poise that led her to gold in Tokyo — and she looked into the crowd to deliver her message.

“There are a lot of young girls and boys out here,” she said. “And I just want to say that if you ever want to reach your dreams, please try and go for it because you never know how far you’re going to get. And it just truly is amazing when you do reach your dreams, so please don’t ever, ever — even if it gets hard — don’t ever stop.”

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