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Suni Lee's historic gold medal celebrated in Colorado's Hmong community

Sunisa Lee is the first Asian American to win gold in the gymnastics all-around and the first Hmong American to compete at all.

DENVER — Sunisa Lee made history at the Tokyo Olympics with her gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around competition.

Lee is Hmong American – the first in her community to compete in the Olympics, let alone win a medal. Her all-around win makes her the first Asian American woman to win a gymnastics medal at the Olympics.

"I just felt so happy knowing that someone who is part of the Hmong community did something so big," Max Vang said. 

Vang is the president of the Hmong Student Association of Colorado and an incoming senior at CU Boulder. He says Lee's win holds extra significance for a community that doesn't get a lot of time in the spotlight.

Credit: AP
Sunisa Lee of the Unites States displays her gold medal for the artistic gymnastics women's all-around at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

"Every single time I meet a person and they ask what my ethnicity is, I would tell them 'I'm Hmong.' And they're like 'what's Hmong?''' Vang said. "It's super cool seeing someone show the hard work that everyone has done. She did it for all of us."

The Hmong people are a displaced ethnic group from Southeast Asia. They helped the CIA to help with covert operations in Laos during the Vietnam War. Hmong refugees initially fled to Thailand. By the seventies, they started arriving in the United States.

Today, the largest Hmong communities are in Minnesota, where Lee and her family live, and California. Colorado has a smaller community.

Kyle Vue is president of the Hmong Association of Colorado, a Denver-based non-profit that aims to preserve traditions and promote educational success for the Hmong community. 

"Our community is proud of Suni Lee's accomplishments," Vue said. "It brings inspiration to all the Hmong Americans out there."

Lena Vang is one of those watching Lee's win closely. The 14-year-old from Denver participated in gymnastics for nine years, four of them competitively. 

"I was proud of [Lee]. I was really happy," Vang said. "No one really knows about the Hmong community. Finding out Sunisa Lee won her gold medal was very significant."

Another piece of Olympic history unfolded on the women's all-around podium. Brazilian gymnast Rebeca Andrade won silver. She's the first from her country and the entire South American continent to win a medal in the all-around competition.

Lee will go on to compete in the uneven bars and beam event finals. She qualified for those events and the all-around competition along with Simone Biles. 

Biles chose not to compete in the team final or the all-around. She's said she'll take future competitions day-by-day.

Lena Vang, the young gymnast, says she's most excited to see Lee in the bars final.

"It's almost like she's flying," Vang said. "It's really awesome."