Lee Leaps Toward Historic Moment

15-3 Sunisa Lee
Hmong gymnast Sunisa Lee performs a stunt at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. (Courtesy Mark VanCleave)

Before Sunisa Lee started lessons, everyone urged her parents to put her in gymnastics. At a young age she was already able to do flips and handsprings, impressing family and friends. She learned new skills either on her own or by watching YouTube videos.  

Today, after 10 years of professional training, Sunisa Lee is on track to become the first Hmong American Olympian. If she makes it to Tokyo next summer, she’ll be the first Minnesotan to compete on the women’s gymnastics team in the Olympics since 1984.  

“I think all the Hmong community is excited for that,” said Yeev Thoj, Sunisa Lee’s mother. “You know, she will be the first one if she makes it.” 

Thoj and her husband, John Lee, put Sunisa Lee in gymnastics when she was 6 years old. At the time, gymnastics was not a popular sport in the Hmong community. 

“I think that Sunisa was probably one of the first,” Thoj said. 

Once Sunisa Lee joined gymnastics, she quickly climbed to the top, accelerating quickly through levels and making her way toward becoming an elite gymnast. Now, as part of the National Team, she is setting her sights on the Olympics. 

“It’s very nerve-racking,” Lee said. “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure, but I’m really excited for what next year has in store for me.” 

The next year of her career may be historic. To make it to Tokyo in 2020, Lee will have to stay healthy and keep working hard. Achieving her goal will be worth all her hard work. 

“It’s a huge thing in the Hmong community if one of our own makes it,” Thoj said. 

The importance of Sunisa Lee’s story has given her solid support from her community, both financially and emotionally. She frequently receives messages of support. People ask her for pictures and autographs. Friends and family pitch in at fundraisers run by her parents. 

“They’ve supported me through it all,” Sunisa Lee said. “I just feel like I have to do good for them.” 

Being a role model comes with pressure, as well. 

“It’s actually kind of scary,” Sunisa Lee said. “I feel like I just have to be perfect. Everyone expects me to make the Olympics and when people are always telling me that it’s really nerve-racking.” 

16-4 Sunisa Lee
Sunisa Lee stands on the all-around podium at a competition in Italy. (Courtesy Jess Graba)

Even with the pressure of representing her community, Sunisa Lee excels at her sport. The support she gets works to push her closer to her Olympic dream. 

“People will text me all the time and be like, ‘You’re such an inspiration,’” Sunisa Lee said. “I think it’s really cool that I can inspire people to want to be better and to keep pushing themselves.” 

“There are a lot of people who look up to her,” Thoj said. “There are a lot of girls who go to the gym to be like her.” 

As she works toward the Olympics, Sunisa Lee will show the world what she can do and continue to be a role model for young gymnasts. 

Sunisa Lee continues to practice at Midwest Gymnastics six days a week, six to eight hours a day. Her hard work is leading her toward a monumental moment for a community that she inspires and whose support she will never forget.

Watch ThreeSixty student Sophia Schach report on this story for ThreeSixty’s TV Broadcast Camp: