Every time the automatic doors swung open at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday afternoon, the crowd of hundreds began to cheer in unison.
It got to a point where the crowd actually started to applaud random strangers as they walked through the doorway. Those people would awkwardly wave back before proceeding to baggage claim to pick up their belongings.
Then, finally, in walked Olympic gymnasts Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum. The two Olympic gymnastic medalists from Minnesota were ready to navigate their newfound fame back in their home state.
“There’s so many people here,” said Lee, an 18-year-old from St. Paul, who won the gold medal in the all-around competition last week at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “I’m just thankful for the amount of love and support that we have.”
On top of winning the all-around, Lee led Team USA to a silver medal in the team competition, and capped her Olympics with a bronze on uneven bars earlier this week. She left Tokyo a couple of days ago, making a pit stop in New York City before arriving back in the Twin Cities.
While in New York City, Lee snapped some photos in Times Square with her sister Shyenne, then appeared on the TODAY Show, where she got to reunite with her family for the first time since leaving for the Olympics. She hugged her father John Lee, then her mother Yeev Thoj as tears of joy flowed. She then put the gold medal around her father’s neck.
“Oh my god, I never thought I would get one of these,” John Lee said on the TODAY Show. “She did it. She brought it home. I’m so proud of her.”
A few hours later, Lee boarded a flight with her family and headed home. There was a party waiting for her upon her arrival.
“This is fun,” said Jess Graba, Lee’s longtime coach, who was alongside her in Tokyo. “There were a lot of people when we got off the plane and down here (at baggage claim) there’s even more. There’s so many people. It’s crazy.”
As soon as Lee and McCallum finally emerged from the terminal on Thursday, the crowd of hundreds erupted. A group of people started a chant of “Suni! Suni! Suni!” with a chant “Grace! Grace! Grace!” to follow. As both gymnasts made their way through the crowd, a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” rained down.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Lee’s cousin Nicole Young, who helped organize the massive watch party in Oakdale last week. “I thought the watch party was crazy and this is even crazier. The turnout was really good. I could barely see her because there were so many people.”
That is likely Lee’s reality for the foreseeable future. She has become a global icon over the two weeks of the Olympics. As her childhood coach Puner Koy put it: “It’s something she’s probably going to have to get used to.”
“She’s a household name now whether she likes it or not,” Koy said. “Her life is never going to be the same. She’s going to be in the spotlight for quite a long time.”
That was evident Thursday, as Lee signed dozens autographs and posed for selfie after selfie with various fans in attendance.
One of the youngest fans was 5-year-old Anice Hirabayashi. Her mother Kalia Chang got a picture of Hirabayashi standing next to Lee amid the chaos. It was especially meaningful for Chang, who like Lee, is Hmong American.
“My little girl was so happy when she won,” Chang said as her eyes welled up with tears. “She was like, ‘Mom! She looks just like me! She looks like me!’ In that moment I got to tell my daughter, ‘You’re Hmong, that’s why. You can be proud of that.'”
Among the countless fans at the airport, Lee made sure to seek out some of her teammates from Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada. She found good friend Lyden Saltness in the crowd and gave her a big hug while nearby photographers captured the moment.
“She has been calling on FaceTime and we have been trying to keep up over the phone since she’s been gone,” the 16-year-old Saltness said. “I was beyond proud of her when she won the gold medal. I don’t know, I was speechless. To see her work so hard in the gym, and then get what she wanted in the end, that was really nice.”
With so many people to see, it was impossible for Lee to greet everyone at the airport. As the crowd continued to surround Lee, Koy was more than content to hang out in the background, soaking up the moment from afar.
“I’m just so happy for her,” Koy said. “It was such an iconic moment when she won the gold medal. It’s been a crazy week since then, and it’s not even close to over. It’s like a party that never stops.”
It will continue Sunday in St. Paul with a parade planned in Lee’s honor on the city’s East Side.
In the meantime, though, Lee was looking forward to spending some quality time with her family. She has been waiting to celebrate with them in person.
“This has been our dream,” Lee said a few minutes before hopping in a Dodge Durango and disappearing out of sight. “It’s just amazing to say that I can come home a gold medalist.”