EAU CLAIRE — The eyes of the Chippewa Valley Hmong community will be focused more than usual on the Olympics this summer.

The athlete many Hmong residents will be watching is Sunisa “Suni” Lee, the first Hmong American to compete in the Olympics.

Lee, a gymnast from St. Paul, will be competing alongside five-time all-around world champion Simone Biles for Team USA when gymnastics events begin Saturday. Lee punched her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics by posting the highest scores in the beam and uneven parallel bars and finishing second overall to Biles in last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials.

Her performance is an inspiration to Hmong Americans across the country and has the potential to create opportunities for many aspiring Hmong athletes, according to local Hmong leaders.

“It is an amazing time to have the first Hmong Olympian representing the United States,” said Caitlin Mai Chong Lee, equal opportunity specialist at UW-Eau Claire. “Hmong all over the world will be paying very close attention to Sunisa and her journey in Japan. We are collectively very proud of her and her accomplishments.”

Blia Schwahn, school and community liaison for the Eau Claire school district, characterized the magnitude of the moment this way: “For the Hmong people, this is almost like when the U.S. first sent a man to the moon. For us, it’s huge.”

Sunisa Lee’s presence on the U.S. team should add some sparkle to Locust Lane Elementary’s summer school program, which kicks off Monday with an Olympic theme under the motto “Go for the Gold.”

“This is very exciting for all of us to have a U.S. Olympian who our Hmong students can identify with and to see a young Hmong girl be the face of America,” said Locust Lane Prinicipal Khoua Vang.

In hopes of making the summer school experience particularly memorable, Vang contacted Lee’s family and put in a request to have the Olympian connect virtually with the Eau Claire students during the program’s Aug. 12 closing ceremony.

Schwahn, who said the Hmong community’s enthusiasm about Lee is evident in many Facebook posts she has seen about the gymnast and her family, views her as a trailblazer for all Hmong people, but especially for Hmong athletes and girls.

“I have a little great-niece who is really into gymnastics, and I always tell her, ‘Maybe someday you could be like Sunisa,’ “ Schwahn said.

That great-niece, 12-year-old Alaina Her of Eau Claire, said she has watched a video of Lee performing and hopes to meet her someday.

Alaina, who competes for a YMCA gymnastics team, said she sees Lee as a role model and source of inspiration, especially to Hmong kids.

“I think it’s awesome to have a Hmong woman to represent your own culture in the Olympics,” Alaina said. “Someone from your own culture gives you more confidence to think that you can do it too. You can also become a famous athlete.”

Opening doors

Many Hmong American families, especially parents who arrived as refugees in the 1970s and ‘80s, traditionally have discouraged their children — particularly girls — from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. Family and school were considered the priorities.

“That first generation really just encouraged that focus on academics and thought of sports as time wasted,” Vang said, noting that parents often pushed children toward careers in medicine, business, education or IT. “I’ve seen so many talented Hmong athletes that have given up on their dreams due to lack of family support.”

Vang said attitudes already are shifting among younger parents, and she believes Lee’s success highlights how sports also can help a person build perseverance, commitment and character and could prompt more Hmong parents to support their children in whatever they are passionate about.

“To know that someone can make a career and inspire others with their sport can be a game-changer as far as athletics,” Vang said.. “I hope this will start to shift the way we look at sports.”

Schwahn agreed, saying Lee’s success could represent a turning point for the the Hmong community and possibly for other Asian American families as well.

“I think it will open doors for families that see potential in their children to support them more in that way,” Schwahn said. “It could help more Hmong parents realize other activities beyond academics have value.”

True Vue, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, hopes Lee’s presence on Team USA will raise nationwide awareness of the Hmong, many of whom came to the United States as refugees after facing persecution in Laos because of their role as key allies to American forces in the Vietnam War.

“It really means a lot because the Hmong community is quite small and not a lot of people know about us,” Vue said. “We’re known mostly in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California, but in a lot of other places people don’t even know we exist.”

‘Extremely honored’

That’s a lot riding on the shoulders of the 5-foot-tall, 18-year-old Olympian, but Lee has dealt with pressure and adversity before.

Not only has she earned multiple medals in national and international competition, but she overcame an ankle injury this spring to make the U.S. Olympic team.

Lee also experienced family hardship after her father, John, who she has called the biggest supporter of her gymnastics career, fell from a ladder while helping a friend trim a tree in 2019, paralyzing him from the chest down.

Ahead of the Olympics, Lee told People magazine that she recognizes that her making history by becoming the first Hmong American Olympian “means a lot to the Hmong community ... and to just be an inspiration to other Hmong people [means] a lot to me too.”

In an Instagram post, Lee expressed her excitement to represent the U.S. in the upcoming Games: “Unreal. I am so extremely honored and blessed to get the opportunity to represent Team USA at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. This is a dream come true, but this is only the beginning.”

Clearly, that sentiment is shared by her many Hmong fans in the Chippewa Valley.