When the gym reopened about two months later, Lee fractured her left ankle on a fall from the uneven bars. Soon after, she spent nearly two weeks in isolation with what she assumes was Covid-19, terrified that she would spread it to her father, whose accident left him paralyzed from the chest down and whose breathing is compromised.
Some days, she wanted to quit the sport, particularly when her ankle wouldn’t heal, and she was unsure if she could make it to the postponed Olympics in Tokyo.
The hardest part, though, Lee said in interviews with The New York Times last year, was when two close relatives died of Covid or a Covid-related issue just 13 days apart: her favorite aunt, to whom she said goodbye over a family video call, and her uncle, a Hmong healer who would often tend to her injuries. In the video call, Lee said, her mother asked her aunt to watch over the family.
Lee is sure her aunt is doing that now. The whole Hmong community has been supporting Lee for years, she said.
Lee grew up in St. Paul, in an area heavily populated by Hmong immigrants who came to the United States to seek refuge after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were children when they escaped Laos, where their relatives fought on the American side during the war. They crossed the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. From there, they headed to the St. Paul area, where about 80,000 Hmong now live.
“People say the United States is the land of opportunity, and I’m living proof of that,” John Lee said Thursday in a telephone interview. “For my kid, a Hmong girl, to be on the world stage, winning a gold medal, it’s just the best feeling ever.”