ST. PAUL —Cheering crowds lined both sides of a mile of White Bear Avenue in St. Paul on Sunday, Aug. 8, to celebrate their hometown Olympic champion.
Gymnast Sunisa Lee held up her gold medal and waved to her fans from atop a St. Paul fire truck, preceded by dancers, gymnasts, family and friends, en route to a ceremony outside Aldrich Arena in Maplewood.
Amid cheers, calls of "We love you, Suni!" could be heard from the crowd.
“This is truly amazing. It’s not like anything I ever expected — to see all of your amazing faces here, it’s just truly incredible,” Lee told the crowd at the post-parade ceremony. She thanked her “whole entire family” and everyone else who came to acknowledge her success.
“I’m so overwhelmed, and I really feel all of the love and support that all of you have given me throughout my whole entire journey and especially now since — I’m an Olympic gold medalist!”
The crowd erupted.
Lee — the first Hmong American to represent Team USA in the Olympics — noted the many young people who showed up for her and shared a message for them: “If you ever want to reach your dreams, please try and go for it, because you never know how far you’re going to get,” she said. “Even if it gets hard, don’t ever stop.”
Earlier in the ceremony, Lee’s parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, addressed and thanked the crowd in both Hmong and English.
Her father, John Lee, asked all of his family to join them on stage.
“[Sunisa] has been through so much and sacrificed so much, but she finally made her dream come true,” John Lee said, adding that she had the emotional and financial support she needed from the national team and her community.
“Next I want to thank three great countries of my life,” he said. “Laos for giving me and my wife birth, Thailand for taking care of us when we needed it and the USA – the land of opportunity – which gave birth to my daughter Sunisa and the opportunity for her to reach her goal and become the first Hmong American all-around world champion.”
John Lee also gave thanks to both his parents and his wife’s parents.
“Without them, we would not be here, and Sunisa would not have the opportunity to set such an amazing example for the world to see who are the Hmong people.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, state Sen. Foung Hawj, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and writers Saymoukda Vongsay and Kao Kalia Yang were among the dignitaries who honored Lee at the ceremony.
"This is a victory for our family, this is a victory for our community, this is a victory for our state, this is a victory for our country — and I'm just so pleased to be able to look out among this scene and see the incredible, beautiful, diverse, multi-lingual team that we have here in St. Paul, Minnesota," Carter said, before leading the crowd in chants of "Suni Lee."
“After 18 months of not having much to cheer about, thank you for giving us a day of joy,” Walz told Lee and her family.
Lee won gold in the women's all-around at the Tokyo Olympics. She earned silver with her teammates in the team gymnastics event and bronze in the individual uneven bars competition.
Lee's already-large impact on kids in her hometown and home state was on full display Sunday, with many young fans lining White Bear Avenue for the parade.
"Suni Lee taught me that if you don't give up, you can be able to get what you've always dreamed of," said 10-year-old Kristina Ruhnow of Maplewood.
"I did gymnastics for 11 years through my high school, so watching her do the Olympics and win was so inspirational, to know someone from my state was represented up there — and she did such a good job and I just wanted to see her today," said Rosella Zaske, 16, of Rosemount.
Kelly Glentz Brush of Vermont was visiting family in the Twin Cities, and she's the mom of a young gymnast and Suni Lee fan.
"All gymnasts are incredible athletes and models for perseverance, but for me I know it's special that Sunisa Lee is an Asian American and a fantastic role model for my daughter," she said.