Suni Lee was fresh off her gold-medal-winning gymnastics performance at the Tokyo Olympics when Lisa Estrella Yang’s phone started “blowing up” with text messages from family members.
Yang, who lives in Boston, and her 10 siblings were ecstatic that a fellow Hmong American was an Olympic champion. The 18-year-old Lee stunned the world Thursday when she won the all-around competition, claiming the title of the world’s best gymnast.
“To be quite honest, I’m still processing it because it feels so momentous,” said Yang, who said her family has shared more than 40 messages on a group text.
Like Lee, Yang’s parents are Hmong, an ethnic group that historically has lived in the mountains of Southeast Asia. She is delighted to see the Olympic spotlight shine on her little-known immigrant community.
“Her victory gives hope for Hmong women and girls to unabashedly go after their dreams,” said Yang, founder of Faceted Beauty, a Boston-based company. “Her path to success paints a picture of a larger opportunity and different opportunities that are available for female-identifying members of the Hmong community.”
Lee, who also won a silver medal in gymnastics team competition, is due to compete Sunday in the finals of the uneven bars and on Tuesday in the balance beam finals, according to the Olympic schedule.
As Lee stood on the podium Thursday with a gold medal around her neck, Michael Khang, president of United Hmong of Massachusetts, said he felt “astonished.”
“Her being the first Hmong American to step on that podium and represent the Hmongs sends not only a great statement to the Hmongs, but to America that we are here to represent the United States as well,” said Khang.
Unlike other immigrants from Southeast Asia, such as Thai and Malaysians, the Hmong community is less-well known. Many came to the US as refugees in the 1970s, with a large number settling in Minnesota, Lee’s home state.
In Massachusetts, the Hmongs are a small community of about 15,000 who settled primarily in Brockton, Fitchburg, and Leominster, Khang said.
Lee’s victory will raise the community’s profile, Yang said.
“It’s a breath of hope,” she said. “Hopefully people will educate themselves on who we are and why we came here — because we didn’t come here by choice, to be honest. And we’re still fighting for a mic[rophone] and we’re still fighting for visibility within the US.”
Yang said it’s “amazing” to think that the younger generation of Hmong women will have Lee to look up to.
“Suni’s victory holds up a mirror for so many people,” said Yang. “It holds a mirror for people even beyond the Hmong community. . . . She’s allowing people to see themselves within her and think, ‘We can do it too.’”
Julia Carlin can be reached at email@example.com.