Sunisa Lee just provided a magnificent addition to the tally of just how much immigrants bring to this nation.
Lee, a first-generation American whose parents are Hmong immigrants from Laos, brought home gold in all-around gymnastics Thursday. The win extended the nation’s streak of Olympic victories in that competition to five and was a bright spot after legendary teammate Simone Biles withdrew from the team event and the all-around event she dominated in 2016.
The unexpected win gave a face to an immigrant community that has been forgotten too often by the United States.
And Lee’s victory became our nation’s latest reminder that embodying diversity and overcoming adversity are the most red, white and blue things an American can do.
Her performance this week has stunned. Lee started by stepping up with an unplanned floor routine and then subbed for Biles in an astoundingly difficult uneven bar display to bolster the team's stats. Lee’s brilliance and poise sparked a silver team finish, and from there she soared on to be crowned the best female gymnast in the world.
There are some 260,000 Hmong in the United States, many clustered in Lee’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Hmong fought alongside Americans in "The Secret War" during Vietnam, to prevent communist control of Laos. In exchange, the Hmong were supposed to be allowed into the United States, as Vietnamese and Cambodians who aided us were.
But for a decade the United States denied entry to the Hmong, beginning to allow them to emigrate in the early 1980s. Today they are a tight-knit, underserved community, and over 60% of Hmong households are low-income.
To bring home Olympic gold, Lee had to overcome her injuries, including broken bones, and those of her father, who has been using a wheelchair since he fell from a tree he was helping trim on the eve of the 2019 world championships. She has also contended with the expense of elite gymnastics, and the tight-knit Hmong community has given help even as she gave them hope.
That Lee’s story is unusual is nearly the norm. Biles, the 2016 all-around winner, has Belizean citizenship through her step-grandmother, who became Biles’ legal mother when she and Biles’ grandfather adopted the gymnast because her biological mother could not raise her. Four years earlier Gabby Douglas, a committed Christian raised following Jewish religious traditions, became the first Black all-around champion. And four years before that Nastia Liukin, a Russian-born child of Soviet gymnasts, brought us gold in the event.
Love of family. Devotion to community. Hard work toward lofty goals. An ability and willingness to seize opportunity at any cost.
These are the traits immigrants have carried to the United States since before it was founded. These are the traits that built this nation.
And these are the traits that allowed Lee to bring home gold.
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