Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 22, 2021.
JOHN LEE IS waiting for his daughter to call. On a Friday afternoon in late June, he’s sitting in a wheelchair in a hotel lobby in St. Louis with his partner, Yeev Thoj, and four of their six children. In a few hours, their 18-year-old daughter, Sunisa, will compete in the Olympic gymnastics trials, where she is favored to secure a spot on the U.S. team and become the first Hmong American to represent the U.S. in the Games.
“She’s calling!” John says, and the group quiets as he picks up the call. Yeev leans in close. Nine-year-old Lucky squeezes in.
“You ready?” John asks.
“I’m nervous,” Sunisa — “Suni” to most family, friends and gymnastics fans — says on FaceTime. “I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Calm,” Yeev responds.
“You’re not doing this for nobody else anymore,” John says. “Not for your friends, not for the Hmong community. You are doing this for yourself now. OK?” He pauses. “Enjoy,” he says. “That’s your only goal. You got this.”
“I got this,” Suni echoes.
John’s pep talks have become something of legend within elite gymnastics circles, especially since a fall from a ladder in 2019 left him paralyzed from the chest down and unable to attend his daughter’s meets. That’s when Suni began sharing the content of their FaceTime conversations and talking publicly about how her dad’s words calm her premeet jitters.
“I try to be confident for her,” John says, “but inside there is nerves.”
The Lees have relied on each other for strength even more than usual in the past two years — through John’s accident and recovery, the Olympic postponement and the death of close relatives during the pandemic. In St. Louis, Suni will carry the support and expectations of her family and Hmong people around the world. And she will compete knowing it is the final time her family will be in the stands to cheer her on as an elite gymnast.
Because of COVID-19, Suni will travel to Tokyo without them, and in the fall, she will leave her supportive home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend Auburn University in Alabama, 1,200 miles away. No matter what happens, trials marks the end of a long, difficult road toward the Tokyo Olympics, the beginning of Suni’s life as an adult and a chance to make her own name alongside the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport.
GROWING UP, SUNI’S bond with her dad was forged through movement. John loved to climb and flip as a child and was a natural athlete who excelled at sports in high school. A favorite family video shows John and Suni throwing synchronized backflips off an oversized lounge chair at a Florida beach when Suni was 8. In another, they backflip into the deep end of a hotel pool.
John often marvels at how alike he and Suni are, how she shares his fierce competitiveness and drive in a way none of her siblings do, even though he is not her biological father. John was recently divorced with two kids, Jonah and Shyenne, when he met Yeev and her 2-year-old daughter, Suni. Suni is only 12 days younger than Shyenne, and many of their classmates believe they are twins. John and Yeev also have three children together: Evionn, Lucky and Noah. It was Suni’s decision, despite the fact that John and Yeev have never legally married, to change her last name to Lee.
“She wanted his last name,” Yeev says.
One of the Lee family’s favorite home videos shows the future Olympic gymnast and her father backflipping on a Florida beach.
Suni was 12 when she won her first big bet with her dad. As she prepared to compete in a high-level meet for pre-elite gymnasts, John bet her that if she won first place in the all-around, he would buy her the iPhone she wanted. When she did, he sold an old truck he’d fixed up to pay for it.
John has always had a keen sense of how best to motivate her, how to apply just the right amount of pressure at just the right time. “When Suni started competing as an elite, I traveled with her almost everywhere,” John says. “I always talked to her before the competition, and sometimes I’d be hard on her and she’d get mad. When Suni’s mad, she focuses a little better.”
But as Suni climbed the international ranks and the pressure mounted, John’s talks shifted in tone. “Now she’s used to me telling her to go out there and have fun,” he says.
Then, just before her first senior nationals, everything changed.
TWO DAYS BEFORE Suni was set to leave for her first senior national championships, on Aug. 4, 2019, John fell from a ladder while helping a friend cut a tree branch. He broke his right wrist and several ribs and injured his spinal cord, paralyzing his body below his chest. He remembers waking up in the hospital and being told he was unable to use his legs.
Suni contemplated skipping nationals. But John convinced her to go to Kansas City with her coach. On the first day of competition, he FaceTimed from his ICU bed and told her it didn’t matter how she finished, just that she did her best. She would always be No. 1 in his eyes, he said.
Suni, then 16, has said she arrived in Kansas City feeling unsettled and unfocused. She didn’t mention her dad’s injury to anyone. But because she knew he was watching on TV, she competed for him. And she was stellar. She finished behind only Simone Biles in the all-around and took gold on uneven bars. It was her biggest performance to date.
The next month, she was named to the U.S. team that took gold at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where she won individual medals on uneven bars and floor. As John, a Navy veteran, began working toward regaining his independence in a recovery unit at the Minneapolis VA hospital, his daughter became a favorite to make the 2020 Olympic team.
John has not regained feeling below his chest and uses a wheelchair. But he has not given up hope of one day standing or taking steps. He recently had a device that can stimulate movement in his legs surgically implanted in his back. “Hopefully in the future, if I have upper-body strength, with the use of an exoskeleton, I can do a little walking,” John says. “That’s my goal.”
Watching John set small, achievable goals on the path toward larger, long-term ones motivated Suni. “She always says she knows it’s harder for me to be where I’m at now,” John says, “and it inspires her. I know it’s hard for her to be in her position, too.”
Watching Suni work toward her goals helps John keep going on tough days, too. “Before my injury, I was active and athletic and I fixed everything around the house,” John says. “I can’t do any of that now, and it’s hard. But when I get so angry at myself, I look at Sunisa and think about what she has had to go through to get to where she’s at, and she inspires me.”
“THAT’S JUST SOME of our family,” Shyenne says as she zooms in on a photo. In the image, roughly 150 people, all wearing matching navy T-shirts, pose in a lush, tree-lined field. A few hold dogs or cradle babies. “That’s me. There’s Evionn … Lucky … There’s our grandma,” she says. “Suni wasn’t there because she had to practice.”
The photo was taken on the first day of an annual family summer camping trip that started in honor of the family’s patriarch, Cher Yee Lee, after he died in 2008. “My dad came to this country and didn’t have an education or understand the language, and he worked two jobs to support 11 kids,” John says. “This is what we do for him.”
John was 7 when his parents brought him and his siblings to the U.S. from Laos, one of several countries where the Hmong, an ethnic group of between 6 million and 12 million people, live. John’s father was a Hmong soldier who fought alongside the U.S. military during the Vietnam War in what is now known as the Secret War. It was evening on St. Patrick’s Day, 1979, when the family arrived in St. Paul. “It was super cold and we didn’t have jackets,” John says. “We had never ridden in a car. We’d never seen lights. We didn’t have electricity in Laos. It was the first time I ate dinner at a table.”
Yeev, who is also from a large Hmong family, was 12 when she arrived in St. Paul with her mother and older sister from Laos in 1987. “We went to a grocery store, and I thought it was magic. Vanilla ice cream in a box. Starburst. And girls wore jeans instead of skirts. I was so excited to wear jeans,” she says while wearing a pair of stonewashed jeans.
Today, more than 300,000 Hmong people live in the U.S., mostly in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Twin Cities boasts the largest and most organized Hmong population in a metropolitan area, and John jokes that he and Yeev are related to most of them and connected to them all.
When Yeev had her first child, she named her Sunisa after her favorite Thai soap opera actress and gave her a Hmong middle name. Traditionally, a person’s Hmong name precedes their American name, but to save her daughter a lifetime of mispronunciations, Yeev — whose name is pronounced “Yeng” — flipped the script. She also uses only Suni’s middle initial, N, on documents.
Like John, Yeev was a high school athlete and wanted her daughter to participate in sports even though “it wasn’t part of our culture,” she says. When a friend saw Suni doing somersaults at the park and suggested Yeev take her to a gymnastics class for toddlers, she signed her up the next week. “Our elders thought sports was a waste of time,” John says.
Before the pandemic, John and Yeev planned to take the entire family to Thailand and Laos after the Olympics. “We really wanted the kids to see life there,” John says. “It’s not as easy in Laos as it is here, where they have everything. Especially Sunisa and Shyenne, I wanted to take them before they go off to college in the fall.”
As Suni has become one of the world’s best all-around gymnasts, she has felt the weight of representing her family and Hmong people around the world.
“A lot of people don’t understand Hmong people or that we went through a really rough life to get here to the United States,” John adds. “Many groups of Asians get lumped together. Did you see the movie with Clint Eastwood, ‘Gran Torino’? It was based on the Hmong people, and even still no one knows. Maybe because of Sunisa, people might know us.”
AFTER THE OLYMPICS were postponed in March 2020, Suni found herself at home all day every day for the first time since she was a kid. The gym where she spent 30 hours or more each week shut down, and she questioned whether she wanted to continue for another year. She wondered if she would still be able to compete her routines after taking so much time off.
But when her parents asked her, “Why would you quit now?” she didn’t have a good answer. She owed it to herself and her years of training to continue, so she followed her dad’s example and set small, achievable goals on the path toward larger, long-term ones.
Then, shortly after Suni returned to her gym in June, she broke her left foot. That summer, her aunt and uncle contracted COVID-19. First, her aunt, her mother’s sister and one of Suni’s biggest supporters, died. Her uncle initially recovered but died 13 days after his wife from a heart attack. “That was the hardest time,” John says.
Suni couldn’t attend either funeral and had to say goodbye to her aunt over Zoom. She missed her uncle, a Hmong shaman who gave her herbal teas and helped heal her injuries. Yeev knew her daughter was hurting physically and emotionally, so when Suni came home sore and bruised from a workout, Yeev applied Hmong rubs and massaged her muscles like Suni’s uncle once would.
All of this took place against the backdrop of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and months of protests down the street from the family’s home in St. Paul. As anti-Asian hate crimes rose around the country, John and Yeev advised Suni and her siblings not to go outside alone. Suni leaned on her sister even more. “We always make time for each other,” Shyenne says.
The sisters got their driver’s licenses. They did each other’s nails. John says that Shyenne knows the right thing to say — or not say — when her sister is stressed. After Dad’s pep talks, Suni often texts Shyenne for sister-level real talk. “I keep her life from being only gymnastics,” Shyenne says. “I keep her social life active. I keep her normal.”
When she returned to competition this winter, Suni looked every bit the gymnast she was pre-pandemic. Her bar routine, considered one of the most difficult in the world, improved every meet. With her dad in the stands for the first time since his accident, she finished second in the all-around, behind Biles, and took gold on uneven bars at the U.S. championships in early June.
“It’s been a tough year, but I’m super proud of myself,” Suni says. “After COVID and quarantine, I was unmotivated because we had so much time off and I felt I wasn’t good enough anymore. But now I’ve been a lot better mentally, and you can see it in my gymnastics.”
“WE’RE GOING THROUGH a tunnel. Everyone, hold your breath!” Yeev is navigating the family’s white minivan through rush-hour traffic toward The Dome at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. Trials begin in less than an hour.
As Yeev pulls into a parking spot outside the arena, she and the kids move with precision. She opens the van’s back hatch and retrieves John’s wheelchair. Evionn assists her in reattaching its wheels. Shyenne pushes it to the front passenger door and helps her dad out of his seat and into the chair. Lucky grabs the handles, spins the chair 180 degrees and points his dad toward the venue. “I push him all over the place,” Lucky says.
Inside, they split up. Yeev and three of the kids go to the second row in front of the floor exercise. Because of his wheelchair, John has to sit in an accessible seating area on the second level. Lucky watches from his lap.
John is overjoyed to watch his daughter compete again in person, to know that she can look up when nerves strike and catch his confident gaze. “But it’s not the same,” John says. “With my injury, I can’t be down there for her. With my lung capacity, I can’t scream too loud. There’s a lot of things I can’t do. I tell Lucky, ‘You have to scream loud for me.'”
During the meet, Suni nails the best bar routine of her career. She is flawless on beam, and her floor routine is a crowd favorite. Shyenne screams at each stuck landing. “I actually did hear my sister scream when I was on floor,” Suni says. “I heard her again on beam and got distracted. She’s so loud. I love it.”
On the second day of trials, Suni is even better. Her all-around score tops the day, making her the first gymnast to earn a higher single-day all-around score than Biles in more than eight years. Biles is still the heavy favorite to repeat as all-around champion in Tokyo, but Suni proved it is possible to beat the sport’s greatest star, and on the right day, she has the routines to do it.
When the Olympic team is announced, Suni looks into the stands and sees her parents, tears streaming down their faces, and hears Shyenne shout her name. “I feel really relieved and very emotional,” she says after the meet. “It’s so surreal to say I am an Olympian. … Hopefully when I go back to the hotel, I will be able to talk to my family.”
A WEEK AND a half before Suni leaves for Tokyo, John and Yeev organize a block party on their street in St. Paul. They announce the event on Facebook, hang banners and sell more than 1,000 autographed Team Sunisa T-shirts to raise spending money for her trip. Neighbors, friends and family stop by throughout the afternoon. They write well wishes for Suni on slips of paper and hang them from a clothesline.
Suni doesn’t attend the party because of COVID-19 protocols. But earlier that afternoon, the family holds a small, private send-off at their home with a few Hmong elders. “We wanted a traditional Hmong celebration,” John says, “but we modified it a little bit.”
Traditionally, each family member would tie a white string around Suni’s wrist and make a wish. “Instead, we got one long string, one elder tied it around her wrist to symbolize the connection, and we all held on to it and made wishes,” John says. Suni had to cut off the string before practice. But she will carry the wishes with her to Tokyo.
The U.S. is favored to win gold in the team competition on July 27. Suni is a favorite to take gold on bars and could medal in the all-around, beam and floor as well. If she makes the beam final, she will compete on Aug. 3, one day before the second anniversary of John’s accident.
Although it begins at 3:45 a.m. local time in St. Paul, Yeev and Shyenne will be on text alert, and John says he will be ready with his final FaceTime pep talk of the Games. It will be perhaps the last time his little girl will need to borrow his confidence or hear him say, “You’ve got this.”
“It’s real now,” John says. “After Tokyo, she’s done and she’ll go off to college, and I won’t be part of it anymore. Her life will change.
“It’s a big moment for all of us.”