July 29, 2021

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – When Sunisa Lee steps onto the floor in the women’s team gymnastics competition on Tuesday, she will carry with her not only the hopes of her family and nation, but also those of the Hmong American community of which she is a part.

Lee is the first of the Hmong group that came to the United States as refugees from Laos following the turmoil of the Vietnam War to ever make it to an Olympics, much less to have a strong shot at medalling or even topping the podium.

At 18, one of the youngest members of the U.S. team, Lee also arrives after overcoming more than most. In 2019, her father fell from a ladder and was left paralysed from the chest down. Last year, she lost to COVID-19 an aunt and uncle, who used to make her herbal teas and give her massages to heal her injuries.

In Tokyo, she stands third in all-around, second in her speciality of uneven bars after a sharp performance, and third in beam, at which she also excels.

“Bars and beam, she’s your queen,” proclaimed a Team USA video tweet showing a leotard-clad Lee posing with a determined face, that she retweeted late on Sunday after qualifications.

Though Lee, like many of her team mates, made some errors, she made it to the all-around, where she will feature with team mate Simone Biles.

Lee began gymnastics at six, after her mother, exasperated at her acrobatics around the house, sent her to a local gym.

“I was always jumping on the bed or having my dad spot me while I was doing backflips and stuff like that. Finally, my mom got tired of it,” she told a newspaper in Minnesota, where she was born.

Lee progressed rapidly. In 2019, when she was 16, she won gold on uneven bars at the U.S. Championships, shortly after her father’s accident. She dedicated her win to him.

“I was thinking of my dad the whole time, and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud,” she told NBC Sports.

She struggled with leg and foot injuries last year but came back stronger.

“I fought off the negative thoughts and the sadness, and just focused,” she told the New York Times. “I feel like I’m maybe tougher because of it. No, not maybe. I am tougher because of it.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Karishma Singh)