Like the story of the estimated 309,000 Hmongs who have settled in the US, her journey has been painful and turbulent.
“We were nomadic and we didn’t have a place to belong and I feel like we fought adversity,” said Koua Yang, athletic director at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where many Hmong refugees settled in the 1970s. “We were warriors throughout history, and here we are in the United States living the American dream. She epitomizes all that … All the struggles.”
Lee’s path to Olympic glory has been pockmarked by injuries, the loss of an aunt and uncle to Covid-19 and a 2019 fall that left her father, John, paralyzed from the waist down.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with Covid and my family and everything else,” Lee told reporters at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
“It’s a beautiful story that just illustrates the struggle of human beings and a people and now we get to celebrate,” Yang said.
Lee’s historic performance Thursday was an epochal moment for Hmongs in America.
“She made all of us proud,” said Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.
“What’s really important is you have a daughter of a refugee representing the United States of America at the Olympics. She not only made the Hmong people proud but I think the United States of America should be proud of her accomplishment as well.”
In Minnesota early Thursday, John Lee pumped his fist in the air as he watched his daughter reach the pinnacle of her sport.
Members of the Hmong community had gathered at packed restaurants and banquet halls as early as early as 5 a.m. local time to watch her performance on television, Xiong said.
“And just think that 40 to 45 years ago many of the people that were involved in the settlement didn’t believe the Hmong would be able to thrive and survive in America, coming from the jungle of Laos to urban America,” Xiong said “And yet if you look at these younger generations, they have far exceeded our expectations.”
“She reminds us that we are Americans — all of us,” Yang said.