Fourteen-year-old Sam Luttrell wedged herself into a crowd of nearly 200 who descended on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday to welcome hometown hero and Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee.
Fans spelled out their excitement in glitter and a rainbow of colors on homemade signs to celebrate the triumphant return of the 18-year-old medal winner from the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
She is the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team. She won gold in the women's gymnastics all-around, silver in the team competition and bronze on uneven bars, the event for which she is best known.
Lee isn't just an overnight international star who came home with a full set of medals. She's one of them, and when she walked through the airport doors her fans swarmed and enveloped her with pride and love.
They raised their cellphones in hopes of capturing a photo. Likewise, Lee took out hers to capture the moment.
"Suni! Suni! Suni!" they shouted. "USA! USA! USA!"
"Grace! Grace! Grace!" they called out, cheering Suni's teammate and fellow Minnesotan Grace McCallum of Isanti.
Luttrell barely got a glimpse of the two as the media converged with cameras and microphones to capture the moment. But it was good enough, she said.
The 5-foot gymnast seemed bigger than life, inspiring those who want to follow in her footsteps and those who celebrate her as the first Hmong American Olympian.
It's one reason Bo Thao-Urabe of Eagan brought her 10-year-old daughter to the airport. Clearly, Lee's medal wins are a personal victory for the gymnast, she said. "But her win is also for all of us.
"The Hmong community has lost so much throughout history," Thao-Urabe said. "Her win shows what's possible when a community is given opportunity and support. All our children can succeed."
Lee's rise to the Olympic podium also gives others outside the Hmong community something to cheer. Isanti Mayor Jeff Johnson and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter joined the welcome home party, bouquets in hand.
"It's something we can all celebrate together," Carter said. "This means everything to our community. … Also, Suni is just a good person. Good things happen to good people."
Nearby, 13-year-old Hannah Wilson held up a sparkling handmade sign: "Congrats Suni. Good luck at Auburn." A line of about 20 other girls from the Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, where Lee trains, raised similar signs, knowing their time left with the gym's star is brief because next week she heads to college in Auburn, Ala.
"Sometimes I watch her in practice and watch how hard she works," Wilson said. "It just amazes me. She's an inspiration. It's so cool. Maybe someday I can go to the Olympics."
Ciena Alipio, 17, who aspires to make it to the World Championship, has trained with Lee since moving to Minnesota from California in January. "She helps me in the gym and pushes me to be better. If I work hard like her, maybe I can make it."
Evelyn Ashbach, an 8-year-old gymnast at Lee's gym, said seeing Lee on TV inspired her.
"I tried doing a flip on the trampoline," she said.
For many in the crowd, however, celebrating Lee is about family.
"We're just normal, everyday people," said Lee's cousin, Nicole King. "This is overwhelming."
But understandable, she added. "We're so excited to celebrate with her."
King said the family knows they have to share Lee with the public. Before arriving in the Twin Cities, Lee reunited with her family on the "Today" show in New York. A local parade will be held in her honor.
"Everyone wants to meet her and talk to her," King said. "We're trying to help her manage it.
As the cheers subsided, an organizer of the gathering hushed the crowd so Lee could say a few words to her fans. Few could hear what she said, her words muffled by a face mask and drowned out by an announcement over the airport speaker.
But no one seemed to mind. They could see the sparkle in Lee's eyes that likely topped a smile hidden beneath the mask. With a security escort, Lee walked through crowd to pick up her baggage.
A flank of fans on either side closed around her, cheering, taking photos. Suni stopped along the way to take selfies and sign autographs on scraps of paper, stuffed animals and whatever people handed to her.
Britt and Adam Murray and their three young boys had just arrived from Washington, D.C., and were waiting for their luggage when they noticed the gym bags on the carousel emblazoned with "USA."
Maybe that's Suni, Adam Murray thought. And then came the crowd and a mob of cameras.
"It was so exciting," said Britt Murray, who captured the unexpected moment on her cellphone camera. "It's fun to have an Olympian from our area."