When Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum left for Tokyo, they weren't quite the household and social media names they've since become.
That was evident when they were greeted by more than 200 people Thursday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
St. Paul's Lee returns with a collection of medals: a gold in the women's gymnastics all-around, a silver in the team all-around and a bronze in the uneven bars. McCallum, from Isanti, Minn., was also part of the U.S. team that took silver. The two greeted a circled-up crowd shortly after they arrived.
"We just wanted to thank you so much for all your love and support. We wouldn't be here today without all of you. So thank you,” McCallum said.
“Yeah, we're definitely feeling the love and support,” Lee said. “This is absolutely amazing. It's amazing to see all of your faces and just to be here all together. It's pretty great. Thank you for everything. Minnesota, represent!”
The two 18-year-olds were immediately enveloped by throngs of fans, friends, coaches, teammates and family. They signed autographs, joined in selfies and hugged young fans who darted between adults to meet them.
Kelly and Lindsey Fang of Eagan brought their two children Malia and Ariel to welcome the athletes. The couple competed on University of Minnesota gymnastics teams, and their children train at the same gym as McCallum.
"So gymnastics is in our blood and our family, and we couldn't be prouder to have two Olympians from Minnesota," Kelly Fang said.
Malia Fang has seen McCallum at the gym several times.
"It's so inspiring because she pushes us to be hard, be better and work harder," the 11-year-old said.
She brought a poster that said "Congrats Grace" and took a photo with her.
Kennedy Vue, 12, of Edina, arrived at the airport early with her dad Patrick to greet Lee.
"Just to congratulate her for being the first Hmong gymnast. I'm just very happy that she was able to be the first all-rounder and get a gold medal," Vue said.
“This is the first time where the name Hmong is being recognized and searched, and in the last week there have been more articles about Hmong people,” Patrick Vue said. “I think more people know about Hmong, and the reason why we’re in the U.S. than probably any time in the last 40 years that we've been here."
State Rep. Kaohly Her of St. Paul says this is a great moment for the Hmong community but also Asian Americans, at a time when Asian hate crimes have grown since the pandemic began.
"Suni says on a huge stage, ‘I am here. We are here, and you will see us,’ and that was the most powerful thing that we could possibly get out of her victory in how she's lifting up her own community," Her said.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter was at the airport to greet the gymnasts, but he singled out Lee.
"An Olympic gold medal speaks for itself — an Olympic gold medal in the gymnastics all-around, you know, they don't give many of those out. So to have someone who's from this community, who's raised in this community, who's trained in this community, to come back from Tokyo with an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics all-around is just very, very exciting," the mayor said.
St. Paul will host a parade for Lee Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. on White Bear Avenue, Carter said. A welcome back party for McCallum will be held Saturday evening in Isanti.
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