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Tackling hatred, overcoming injury, and winning medals: Suni Lee, the US gymnast’s story

When Simone Biles pulled out, the onerous task to lead USA in the Artistic Gymnastics Team final fell on Lee. “The most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life," she would later say. It didn't reflect in the stunning show she put up.

Written by Sriram Veera |
Updated: July 29, 2021 5:38:48 pm
USA's Sunisa Lee reacts after competing in the uneven bars event of the artistic gymnastics women's team final (AFP Photo)

Last year when George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minnesota, an unexpected fallout of the ensuing protests scared the family of Sunisa Lee, the US gymnast who led the way after her teammate Simone Biles’s exit in Tokyo Olympics.

Kellie Chauvin, the now ex-wife of Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd, is an Hmong American. So is another officer on the scene and who is set to stand trial in August.

In the protests that followed Floyd’s death, many Hmong American businesses were vandalised. Several homes in Suni Lee’s neighbourhood were broken into.

“I was trying to make the Hmong community more known,” Lee told Elle magazine in April. “When that happened, I felt like it was a setback.” Her father John said he was “scared” when homes in their block was broken into.

Hmong is an ethnic group of people primarily from Southeast Asia and areas in China who fought alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War. Lee’s family emigrated from Laos and Suni is the first-ever Hmong American Olympic gymnast.

“People hate on us for no reason,” Suni Lee told the magazine about the anti-Asian hatred in her country. “It would be cool to show that we are more than what they say. I don’t know how to explain that…”

READ | Tokyo Olympics 2021 Day 6

The last 18 months have not been easy on her. First the Pandemic postponed the Olympics and Suni spiralled into depression.

Then, She broke her foot last June that put her out of training for three months.

An uncle, a Hmong shaman, helped heal her hurt foot with hot ginger and other herbal medicines, she tells Elle. The uncle and aunt would later succumb to Covid.

Now, Biles, who was a pillar of support during Lee’s depressive phase last year, pulled out and it was left to her to bring home the medals. For her, for her family, for her uncle and aunt, and for the close-knit Hmong American community.

The dream had started with a mattress and some ingenuity.

What do you when you can’t afford a gymnastic beam for your daughter? Suni’s father John decided to build a homemade beam from mattresses.

“She goes to the gym and she practices but we don’t have a beam here. So I couldn’t afford a real beam, so I built her one,” John Lee told NBC. “It’s in the backyard now!” It’s a four-foot long structure built with a mattress.

Last August, John was paralysed from chest down after he fell off a ladder while helping a neighbour trim a tree. “My hands are getting stronger. My balance is not so great, but I’m learning how to cope with that.”

READ | Biles stumbles, Osaka out, spotlight on mental health, Tokyo 2020 says, ‘It’s okay’

When Biles pulled out due to mental health issues, the onerous task to lead fell on Lee. “The most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life,” she would later say. It didn’t reflect in the stunning show she put up.

The situation with the paralysed father, the anti community hatred, the pandemic-induced depression, and the pressure of Biles exit should have shown but it didn’t.

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