Who is Suni Lee's father? Horrible accident paralyzed Olympic gymnast's doting dad Houa John
Houa John Lee, Suni Lee's father, became paralyzed from the waist down after a tree-trimming accident in 2019
Suni Lee brought a smile to the faces of many Americans after winning a gold medal for women’s individual all-around gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday, July 29. Her Hmong parents played an instrumental role in her journey, with her paralyzed father building a balancing beam in their backyard with his own hands as he couldn't afford one.
Houa John Lee became paralyzed from the waist down after a tree-trimming accident in 2019. He is one of his daughter's biggest supporters and is originally from Laos. It's worth noting that Sunisa, at 18, is the youngest on Team USA. She became the highest-qualifying US gymnast for the all-around final after Simone Biles, considered to be one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, dropped out of the competition this week citing mental health reasons.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, both of Suni Lee's parents are refugees from Laos. Thanks to their tireless dedication, she became the first Hmong-American to represent the US at the Olympic theater and is viewed as an ambassador and role model within her community.
The Hmong fought alongside US troops in Laos, where thousands of them were killed in action or killed by the Lao government after Americans withdrew from the land. In the late 1970s, many sought refuge in the US. Lee’s parents, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were young children at the time and fled with their families to refugee camps in Thailand.
“When the US pulled out of Laos, the war wasn’t over,” John Lee told the Star-Tribune. “People had to go to Thailand for their safety, and for a chance to have a better life.” The outlet noted how many members of the Hmong community settled in Minnesota, including Lee's parents and other members of her extended family.
In 2019, Houa John Lee suffered a spinal cord injury, fractured ribs, and a broken wrist after he fell while trimming a neighbor's tree branches. Following the accident, he had a lengthy hospital stay and remains partially paralyzed to this day. According to the Star-Tribune, John supported his daughter's aspirations from when she was just a little girl. They signed her up for gymnastics training when she was barely six as an outlet for her energy. They told the paper how she would often tumble and flip around in their yard.
Cecelia Lee, her aunt, said it was "a little bit surreal" that her niece was an Olympian. She “recalled watching a much younger Suni in the same backyard, swinging from the metal bars holding the clotheslines and practicing on a wooden balance beam crafted by her dad," per the Star-Tribune.
The article also noted how her dad gave her a pep talk before every competition. On many occasions, his physical disability would prevent him from being next to her daughter, but he made sure to share words of encouragement over FaceTime. Meanwhile, her mother told the paper how she gets so nervous that she can't watch her daughter perform live.
“I get so nervous,” Yeev Thoj told the Star-Tribune. “My heart beats so fast. At the Olympic trials, she did so well, I was in tears every time she finished an event.”