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Tokyo Olympics: Hmong-American gymnast Sunisa Lee makes history after pushing superstar Simone Biles at trials

July 4, 2021 GMT

Our Tokyo Trail series looks at key issues and athletes in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, which are scheduled for late July. This is the second in a two-part feature on Asian-American gymnasts who made headlines in the past week.

When Asian-American gymnast Sunisa Lee clinched her spot on the US women’s gymnastics team last weekend, members of the Hmong ethnic minority rejoiced in her historic achievement.

The 18-year-old will become the first member of the community ” which has its roots in Laos and China, and numbered about 327,000 in 2019, according to Pew Research Centre data ” to represent the US at the Olympic Games. Before Lee, two other Asian-American gymnasts, Amy Chow and Katelyn Ohashi, represented the US at the Olympics.

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Lee and her teammates ” including superstar Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum ” will head to Tokyo later this month with a dream of earning the US its third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team competition. No other country has managed this except the Soviet Union, which won eight straight golds between 1952 and 1980.

Team USA faces strong competition from the Chinese team, which is under pressure after failing to win a single gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

The team competition comprises the floor routine, uneven bars, balance beam and vault. Although different members can compete in the same exercise, the final result is tabulated from 12 scores. The gymnasts will also compete in individual medal events.

After qualifying for the US team, Lee was overjoyed, thanking her coaches and family on Instagram. She has five siblings ” her younger sister Evionn is also a gymnast and has competed at regional level. They live in St Paul, Minnesota, which is home to a Hmong community.

“This is a dream come true but this is only the beginning,” Lee said.

Since taking up the sport at age six, Lee has won national championships and in 2019 added to a team gold medal at the World Championships with silver in the floor exercise and bronze on the uneven bars.

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At the Olympic trials, Lee finished ahead of Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, on the first day. Although Biles recovered to win, it was the first time since 2013 she had been outscored in a single day of all-around competition.

A two-time US champion on the uneven bars, Lee is one of the favourites to win gold in the event in Tokyo, where she is expected to perform one of the most difficult routines in the world.

“She sealed (her spot on the Olympic team) with a bold and remarkable performance at both the USA Championships and the final trials,” said commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke, a former gymnast who won silver and bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Lee has performed the most difficult uneven bar combinations with precision and near flawless execution, Clarke said. Her balance beam work is also “equally good” and her confidence, poise and presentation qualities promise to make her a stand-out in that event.

“She was the epitome of ‘calm, cool and collected’ throughout both days of trials,” Clarke said. “I don’t think we can overstate how incredible her final night at trials was.”

Lee’s streak of success notwithstanding, she has faced some recent challenges, not least the heightened discrimination against Asian-Americans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She also battled an ankle injury and faced personal tragedy after her aunt and uncle died from coronavirus. Her father was also paralysed and has been confined to a wheelchair after falling from a tree.

His accident occurred just before the 2019 US Championships. Lee went ahead and competed, claiming second place in all-around competition behind Biles and winning the uneven bars title.

Nevertheless, her father’s accident was a major distraction. He was booked for spinal surgery but on the first day of competition called Lee via FaceTime and told her “just go out there and do what you normally do”, she told The New York Times last year.

Lee’s Hmong ethnicity has also been a source of unwanted attention in the past year or so. When George Floyd was killed last year by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, not far from St Paul, an officer of Hmong descent was among those standing nearby who failed to intervene.

Lee told The New York Times that during the ensuing unrest Hmong-owned businesses were looted and the presence of the Hmong officer was “extra upsetting”.

“It kind of made me feel like you’re a bad person because you’re Hmong,” she said. “As a proud Hmong-American, I’m trying to spread positivity about Hmong people and tell people what it’s like to be Hmong, and I felt like this was a big blow to our reputation.”

Community organiser Nkauj Iab Yang said Lee’s accomplishment meant a great deal to Americans of Hmong descent.

“Her success sends a message to all young Hmong women and girls that their dreams are attainable too,” said Yang, the director of California Policy and Programmes at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Centre.

Many Hmong who fought alongside the US in the Vietnam war emigrated to the US in the 1970s and 1980s in search of a better life. National surveys have found that among Asian-Americans, Hmong have struggled the most with economic insecurity.

Chia Youyee Vang, a Hmong-American and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said Lee’s story mirrored the community’s transition from “distressed refugees arriving with not much more than the clothes on our backs” to people who can now explore opportunities.

Hmong-Americans struggled to survive in the early years, she said, but have now achieved “things that many people did not believe we could because of our status as refugees”.

“Whether we are related to her or not, we feel that her achievements are ours as well. It enhances our sense of belonging in this country,” she said.

For Lee, who will begin studying at Auburn University in Alabama later this year, the path to Tokyo has been a long journey.

“It’s so surreal to say I am an Olympian,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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