Suni Lee landed a gold medal — and a secure place in the hearts of millions. The 18-year-old St. Paul phenom is now a household name in Minnesota and beyond. That means we're celebrating everything about her — from her gymnastic skills to her Hmong heritage to her fingernails.
Suni is known for wearing long acrylic nails, even during competition. (She's been quoted as saying they help her grip the uneven bars.) So it wasn't a surprise that she sported a stylish manicure at the Tokyo Olympics.
But the design — white, square-tipped nails with the Olympic rings — not only captured worldwide attention, but showcased her connection to a Hmong-owned nail salon in Minneapolis.
"She told us that her nails were her good-luck charm," said Elizabeth Lee, a Hmong American nail artist and manager at Little Luxuries Nail Lounge.
The story behind the Olympic nails started with an Instagram message.
Lee, who had been following Suni's career for years, couldn't help but notice that she had her nails done for past competitions. Lee sent Suni a message from the salon's Instagram account before the Olympic trials.
To her surprise, Suni not only responded, but came into the salon a week later to get a basic white acrylic set on her nails.
"Never in a million years would I have thought she would've responded back," Lee said.
Before leaving for Japan, Suni came in again.
This time, Lee sketched out some designs, including one that represented Hmong heritage. Suni explained that she had to keep her nail designs simple, so they ended up with a white base decorated with red and blue curvy waves on the right hand, and the Olympic rings on the left. (The waves were later buffed off because they were considered too distracting, Lee said.)
"Unfortunately, she's sad that she couldn't keep the red and blue on, but she was able to keep the rings, which was number one for me, for sure, because we had to hand-draw those and it did take a little bit of time," Lee said.
Those nails lit up social media, garnering the salon national attention.
"We're so thankful and really humbled by all of the attention we're getting," Lee said. "All the praise honestly goes to Sunisa. She's the true superhero. She's my hero in my book. She's inspired me because, hey, like the girl has on nails, and she didn't lose a single one during competition."
Living the dream
Growing up in North Carolina, Lee was often in and out of her aunt's salons. After working as a paralegal assistant, she became a nail artist four years ago.
"Nails is kind of like something that I just kind of picked up, and I really enjoy doing it," she said.
Lee moved to Minnesota in 2019 to join her cousin Amy Vang at Little Luxuries. The two were close when they were young.
"She's pretty much been the older sister figure in my life," Lee said of Vang. "I don't have any actual blood sisters. She helped me step into that realm of being a girlie girl."
Vang, who had moved from North Carolina to be closer to her husband's family, opened the Lake Street salon three years ago.
Vang is thrilled that Suni came to the salon, of course. But her appreciation goes beyond good PR.
The gymnast is the first Hmong American to represent Team USA, for which she has won gold, silver and bronze medals. Lee and Vang said they are proud of Suni's accomplishments and how she's represented the Hmong community.
"Her win symbolizes more than just that gold medal," Vang said. "Especially the fact that she's Asian, and she represents America. And it's just a little ironic that it happens during this time when there's so much division and anti-Asian hate going on."
The women hope that parents in the Hmong community are able to reconsider the possibilities for their children after watching Suni's journey to the Olympics. Oftentimes, they said, immigrant parents encourage their kids to become doctors or lawyers and achieve the American dream.
"I hope that going forward, this change will continue to help our community prosper," said Lee. "And it's only going to help Hmong families — especially second-generation Hmong parents — to really inspire their children to do whatever they want.
"Nothing is impossible. Sunisa Lee, she made the American dream a reality."
Growing up Hmong American, it wasn't uncommon to have to explain the history and background of Hmong people. Lee said Suni's place on an international stage has helped elevate the entire Hmong community.
"It would take you like two and a half days to explain the journey of Hmong people, from the mountains of Laos," Lee said. "Now, I can just tell my future children that whenever people ask what kind of nationality you are, they can say we're Hmong like Sunisa Lee, the gymnast."