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Sunisa Lee Is A Beacon Of Hmong American Pride


Here's what it sounded like in Minnesota, where Sunisa Lee's family, friends and supporters gathered to watch her compete.




SHAPIRO: That's the moment they realized she won the gold medal. She may now be the biggest Hmong American star ever. Angela Vang is from the Twin Cities and wrote about Suni Lee for Time magazine - good to have you on the show. Hi, Angela.

ANGELA VANG: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Before I ask you to put on your journalist hat, just can you reflect personally as a Hmong American on what it felt like to see her win gold this morning?

VANG: So as someone from the same hometown as Suni Lee, it was so, so unbelievable to see her clinch that gold medal. I woke up at 5 a.m. sharp to make sure I watched it happen. And, I mean, she did it with a full set of nails on, too, which I realized afterwards at the ceremony.

SHAPIRO: Important detail.

VANG: (Laughter) And I'm really just so blown away. I mean, I called my sister afterwards, who's 6 years old, because I wanted to celebrate with her. And she's been in gymnastics for about a year now. And what's so amazing to me is the realization that kids like my sister and younger will never not know a time when there wasn't a Hmong Olympian. And that's so touching.

SHAPIRO: At 18, she is the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. Can you tell us a little bit about the road that she took to get here?

VANG: According to a lot of interviews with her family, she actually started pretty late compared to a lot of her counterparts. Many competitive gymnasts at this level start when they're toddlers, and Lee didn't start doing gymnastics until she was around 6 years old. So the fact that there wasn't a head start and she still got gold today makes her career even more impressive.

SHAPIRO: So her family is from St. Paul, Minn., which has a large Hmong population. Can you just tell us about the community there?

VANG: So the Twin Cities actually houses the largest urban Hmong population in the United States. And the first wave of refugees arrived in the late '70s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and a huge portion ended up in Minnesota.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In your piece about her for Time, you say that although Suni Lee fits into the American individualistic narrative of an athlete overcoming adversity through hard work and perseverance, her story still feels distinctly Hmong. Can you tell us more about that?

VANG: Yeah, definitely. I think that Hmong ideals often revolve around family and community. And even in interviews with Suni, she always says she's doing this for the Hmong community, she's doing this for her family, and she's doing this for her coaches. And, I mean, I can't even tell you how much excitement I witnessed online today seeing videos of her family cheering for her, seeing strangers cheer for her. And, you know, watching her family, whether it's during U.S. nationals or during the Olympic competition, it's so reminiscent of any Hmong household that you could just step into in the Twin Cities, including my own. There are kids everywhere. There's food. There's cheering. There's so much joy and pride. And that's something that is so reflective of our community.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think her victory represents more broadly?

VANG: In my conversations, especially with young Hmong people and Hmong women, Suni Lee is representative of hope and optimism for the future. And in a culture that can sometimes be patriarchal, she is a reminder that we should never clip the wings of our daughters. You know, you don't see a lot of families like Suni's invest as much time and money and energy into young women. And I think what her family has done for her, too, is so exemplary.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist and former ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Angela Vang - so good to talk to you. Thank you.

VANG: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRIC SONG, "THE FACE PART I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.