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Gold Medal Gymnast Sunisa Lee Reshaping The Narrative Of What It Means To Be Hmong American

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 9
Jamie Squire
Sunisa Lee of Team United States poses with the bronze medal for the Women's Uneven Bars Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Sunisa Lee, also known as Suni, is the first Hmong American to participate and win in any Olympics. Most notably, she won gold in the women’s gymnastics all-around, and most recently, a bronze medal in the uneven bars. Along the way, she’s broken down barriers to reshape the narrative of what it means to be Hmong American.

Chia Vang describes the impact of Lee's win:"So what I see is that Suni has, she is, to me, first and foremost, a phenomenal American athlete. Suni's ability to transform and become the phenomenal athlete that she is, says a lot about our community and our ability to, to work hard and to not be defined by where we started in this country."

Vang is a professor of history and the interim chief diversity officer for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Milwaukee is no stranger to Hmong culture and heritage. The city has a long relationship with the community, dating back to the mid 1970s.

"... Milwaukee history is very much a reflection of Hmong American history. The Hmong did not have a migration experience in the U.S. before 1975, during the Vietnam War, which is what we call it, but in Asia — everybody calls it the American war," Vang acknowledges.

Vang says Lee winning gold speaks to the many challenges that the Hmong community face."... When you disaggregate the data, you see that some communities like Southeast Asians, and Hmong in particular, we struggle a lot," she explains."You know, we have larger families, we live in areas where, you know, when people don't have the educational background, it's harder to have the types of jobs that will allow them to move up in terms of the economic ladder."

Lee beat the odds — as gymnastics can be an expensive sport, limiting those who participate. And, before her historic win, the gymnast lost two relatives to COVID-19 and endured a broken foot as well.

Vang adds, "She makes me feel a great sense of belonging. She is an American, she's representing this, this great flawed country."

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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