Amazin LêThi woke up one morning in a homeless shelter and burst into tears. In a life full of hard times, she was at her nadir.
LêThi credits the discipline she learned from bodybuilding for allowing her to pick up the pieces ... all the way to the White House. Today, LêThi is an international LGBTQ advocate, helping to organize the first “Spirit Day” under the Obama Administration in collaboration with GLAAD and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
It’s not an exaggeration to say sports saved her life.
“I’ve become the person I am today because of sports, and it’s saved me through different hard periods in my life,” LêThi said. “I’ve been able to go back to that mental strength of an athlete to pull myself out, and that’s what I did.”
LêThi recognizes that’s easier said than done. She was born in Saigon, Vietnam, where her mother left her in an orphanage. Her foster parents lived in Australia, where she says she was subjected to racist taunts throughout her childhood.
During one traumatic incident, LêThi recalls that a teacher once made her stand up in front of the class, and told the students “this is what failure looks like.” From that moment on, LêThi vowed to make a difference.
“I just thought to myself, ‘I can’t cry, because everyone is laughing a time,’” she said. “And I thought, ‘I’ll never be this humiliated again, and never want another child to go through this experience.’”
Originally, LêThi turned to sports to find community, but the harassment didn’t stop. She says her sprinting coach once told her she was slowing the team down, because she was Asian.
The experience made made her feel utterly isolated.
“I really believed I was the only Asian LGBTQ child in the world, and that created a tremendous amount of sadness,” LêThi said. “We just don’t get to ourselves in the media as often as we like, and it’s so difficult to come out.”
Still in search of an outlet, LêThi started bodybuilding, and committed herself to a stringent routine of 100 dumbbell curls, sit ups and push ups each day. She found solace in the work, and motivation from internationally renowned bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He showed her it was possible to use sports as a platform.
“I knew instantly through seeing that story, that could be something for me,” LêThi said. “Finally, I saw someone who was different, and celebrated their difference.”
But life is not linear. LêThi moved to Europe as a young adult and fell into a spat of destructive partying, which was fueled by self-hate. She was homeless and spent her time in and out of shelters. At times, LêThi felt suicidal. Years of being the only Asian girl in class, as well as queer, had taken its harsh mental toll.
“You take for granted everyday you’ll wake up and see people like yourself,” she said. “But imagine if, tomorrow, you wake up and don’t see people like yourself.”
That’s the primary reason LêThi finds herself attracted to advocacy work: Visibility. She’s spoken at the United Nations and around the world, telling her story so nobody feels as alone as she did.
This past month, she hosted a series of Outsports conversations for AAPI Heritage Month. LêThi wants to lift people up whenever she can.
“I never thought of myself as an advocate,” she said. “My simple thought was always, ‘If I share my story, someone will listen, and it will resonate.’ I think of myself as a child, and what it would’ve meant if I shared a story like mine.”