B-girl Sunny Choi, in a green shirt and black pants, holds a breaking pose on one hand against a brick and cement background.

Road to Paris: B-girl Sunny Choi is breaking through

The Korean American on how breaking helped her overcome and work through many issues, including accepting her Asian identity

B-girl Sunny Choi will represent Team USA at the Olympics this summer in the Games' first-ever breaking event.

Little Shao

Words by Samantha Pak

Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!

It was always Sunny Choi’s dream to go to the Olympics.

As a little girl, she used to draw pictures of herself with the Olympic rings, and when her mother took her to her first gymnastics class at the age of 3, Choi asked if they were going to get her a gold medal. About the time she was 12 or 13, that dream shifted and Choi, who was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, set her sights on collegiate gymnastics. Unfortunately, injuries ended her gymnastics career right before college.

But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. And at the beginning of college, Choi found breakdancing, or breaking. The Olympics may have not been in the picture anymore, but breaking helped Choi overcome and work through many issues—both on and off the floor.

Then in 2020, it was announced that breaking was going to be an Olympic sport debuting in 2024. Suddenly, Choi had a second chance to compete on sports’ biggest stage. And she’s taken it, by winning the first-ever breaking gold medal at the 2023 Pan American Games to qualify for the Olympics this summer. She’s the first American woman to qualify for the Games in her sport (the second and final spot has yet to be determined).

I recently spoke to the 35-year-old Korean American, who now lives in Queens, New York. As a former gymnast myself and only two years older than her, we talked about our experiences in the sport (including competing at similar levels, at the exact same time), her transition from gymnast to B-girl, being Asian in a community that originated in the Bronx from Black and Latino street culture, and the pressure of representing New York—specifically breaking and hip-hop culture—on such a big stage.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

B-girl Sunny Choi, in a green shirt and black pants, leans against a gray cement pillar.

Sunny Choi has wanted to go to the Olympics since she was a little girl and her dream will come true this summer.

Little Shao

SP: You started out as a gymnast before becoming a B-girl. How did you transition to breaking?
SC: I just stumbled into breaking, actually. People were just dancing on campus and they asked me if I wanted to join in and take a class. I was like, “Sure.” So I showed up and I first was hooked on the physicality of breaking. Because like gymnastics, you're upside down. But then, as time went on, I fell in love with the creative expression in breaking as much as I enjoyed the physical demands. So it’s the combination of the two that really kept me in it.

SP: How did your background in gymnastics help?
SC: I had really good body awareness. I was able to pick up on things a little bit quicker. Although, it still took me a really long time to learn power in breaking, but part of that is because power is all by men and not for women's bodies, and I was also being taught by men. So I had to figure out how it works for me and it took me so much longer than everybody else.

SP: And can you explain what power refers to here?
SC: A power move is when breakers do flares. You're doing those dynamic physical movements, usually in a circle, and you're on the floor, spinning on your head. That's all considered power moves.

SP: How did being a gymnast hinder you?
Gymnastics was so disciplined that when I switched to breaking, I was like, “I don't know what I'm doing with myself. I've never been creative, and I can't dance in front of people, doing my own movements.” I'd only ever performed something that other people created. And then breaking, I'm freestyling most of the time. That was extremely scary.

Battling was another level of anxiety. I just kept doing it and it got easier with time. But that was really challenging for me to get over. I think also because growing up, I was in very academic classes. I didn't do much in terms of art, or anything really creative. That made breaking more challenging.

B-girl Sunny Choi, in a green shirt and black pants, balances on one foot and holds her other foot, against a brick and cement background.

In addition to Team USA, Sunny Choi will be repping New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, in breaking at the Olympics.

Little Shao

SP: What helped you overcome this?
SC: I knew this was something that I wanted to do and I was the only person holding myself back. And that drove me crazy. So, not letting myself be my own worst enemy. I've always known this was challenging for me because the few times I did have to do anything creative, I had always questioned my abilities and second guessed myself.

Basically, I was like, “I'm not gonna let this defeat me.” So I just kept going. The journey became about so much more than that. I just kept uncovering more layers of myself that I wanted to peel back and examine and understand why this is happening and then work through that.

SP: So this helped you work through things off the floor, in other parts of your life?
SC: Absolutely. For example, when they announced breaking in the Olympics, I initially was really unsure of whether I wanted to pursue it. I questioned myself again at that point like, “What is it that's stopping me? Because this has been a childhood dream.”

It really came down to I'm just scared of failing. I've never had to set my sights so high that I could fail. I've never had lofty goals—

B-girl Sunny Choi, in a blue-gray top, khaki pants and white hat, balances on one hand while grabbing one foot with her other hand, with people sitting in the stands in the background.

Sunny Choi's background in gymnastics gave her good body awareness, which helped her pick up moves when she transitioned to breaking.

Little Shao

SP: I'm exactly the same. I keep things realistic for myself.
SC: Yeah, exactly. And then I was like, “If this is what's stopping me from going to the Olympics, it's not a good excuse.” It was those kinds of realizations that I came to, and it only could have happened because of breaking.

Obviously, I did have to make some sacrifices. There were things that I needed to do, but I knew I could if I wanted to. I was just choosing not to and I wanted to know why.

It was about always having chosen the right path, which is dictated by society, by family, by our cultures. Then there’s this other route of what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance. I wanted to go to the Olympics. It was just having a lot of internal dialogue.

It was about always having chosen the right path, which is dictated by society, by family, by our cultures. Then there’s this other route of what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance. I wanted to go to the Olympics.

SP: What would you say to your younger self now that you're actually going to the Olympics?
SC: I would tell myself to just trust your gut, be you, and keep going. To be honest, at that point in my life, I wasn't ready to make those decisions yet because I didn't know what I wanted to do.

I had just been on the path that I was supposed to go on for so long, and I never strayed from it. I never really went out to actually see what I wanted to do, or really explore.

Knowing who I was at that time, I couldn't ask myself to do anything but, “trust yourself and keep going.”

SP: Gymnastics is such a young person's sport—for men and women. To make those decisions to have a career in your pre-teens, that's crazy.
SC: Honestly, I feel fortunate that I am a little older, and I'm choosing this path for myself for the Olympics. With so many people who are younger who get into their sports early, it's just the natural evolution. (The Olympics are) what you target, but it's not because you know what all the other options are in life. It's because this is the path that you've seen since you were a child. This is what you should want. And I'm not saying that it's not what they want. I'm sure it is, but having made this choice at the age of 33, 34, it felt very different. Because I had lived. I very conscientiously made this choice. And it's just been a really rewarding journey to be able to go along this very mindfully.

SP: What was your feeling when you realized you had qualified for the Olympics at the Pan Am Games?
SC: More than anything I was actually relieved.

If I didn’t make the Olympics at the Pan Am Games, I’d have to go to trials, which is more traveling, more stress on the body. I had a spot secured at trials in case I didn't qualify at the Pan Am Games, but I really hoped this was it.

On top of that, there was a lot of pressure going into Pan Am because there was a general expectation from many people that I would be one of the females that represented for the U.S. at the Olympics. And also breaking started in New York. I'm repping New York because I've lived here as long as I lived in my hometown, spending my whole adult life here and most of my breaking career here. Carrying that legacy and wanting to represent New York City at the Olympics, there was a lot going on in my head.

B-girl Sunny Choi, in a green shirt and black pants, balances on one arm, with a brick building in the background.

Breaking helped Sunny Choi come to terms with her Asian identity and being an Asian person in hip-hop.

Little Shao

SP: You first got into breaking in the early to mid 2000s, when the idea of breaking being in the Olympics was crazy. Can you talk about how breaking has evolved from Black and Latino street culture, to this worldwide phenomenon that’s now in the Olympics?
SC: It's not just breaking, hip-hop also has become a global phenomenon. And all of that started in Black and Latino communities in the Bronx. To be honest, in my experience with breaking, I struggled a lot with the fact that I was Asian, and that I didn't look the part. It was more about me making myself the outsider and not that anyone else made me feel like I was the outsider. The whole community has always been really warm and welcoming and has never made me feel like I didn't fit in. I just hadn't accepted myself—not just as an Asian within the hip-hop and breaking community, but I hadn't even come to terms with being Asian, because I hated the fact that I was Asian for so long.

It was a lot that I had to work through—this process of qualifying and representing America and representing breaking and hip-hop, and what that all means. I realized and uncovered that I just wasn't comfortable with the fact that I was Asian, or proud of my own roots. I had to do some digging to figure that out. Once I came to terms with that, I realized that this community has always been really open. Communities change, they evolve. Breaking has done that and it's become such a global phenomenon that you can go to any country in the world and you're gonna find breakers. And we all look different because one of the most beautiful things about breaking is there's no financial barrier to entry.

I just wasn't comfortable with the fact that I was Asian, or proud of my own roots. I had to do some digging to figure that out. Once I came to terms with that, I realized that this community has always been really open.

SP: You just need the music.
SC: Yeah, and that's it. You don’t have to pay for equipment. It's relatively accessible compared to a lot of other sports out there. So wherever you go, you have this really beautiful, diverse community. That's what breaking has become.

It's one of my favorite things about breaking, because you walk into a room, there are kids, there are adults, there are the elderly. You have people of all different races all in the room together and we're all sharing and it's really beautiful. Not to say that we don't have some progress to make in other areas of inclusion. But at the end of the day, we're doing our best.

SP: You've done international competitions and battles as a B-girl. What do you think will make the Olympics different?
SC: For a lot of breaking events, the audience is breakers and hip-hop heads. The Olympics is an audience that we've never really been able to access and had a level of awareness with. The scale of the Olympics is going to be wildly different from anything we've ever done.

In terms of competition, it does look different at the Olympics than at a local competition. At the Olympics, the music is all copyright free. So there's only certain types of music you can play there, versus a local jam where we’re playing hip-hop tracks, and funk tracks.

And then the vibe (at local events) is usually very different because it's a small floor. It's much more intimate. It's more about just dancing and hanging out than it is about the battle sometimes. Whereas, the Olympics is all about the competition.

B-girl Sunny Choi, in a green shirt and black pants, kneels low, with a brick building in the background.

Sunny Choi will be one of two women to represent Team USA in breaking at the Olympics this summer.

Little Shao

SP: So probably no Eric B & Rakim (whose music you often hear in breaking) at the Olympics? [Laughs]
SC: I mean, unless they could break a deal. [Laughs] I don't think we're gonna have that. It would be nice! I think they are trying to do something to make sure that the music is a bit more true to what we dance to.

SP: What are you looking forward to in Paris?
SC: In terms of the Olympics, I'm really looking forward to the Opening Ceremony. It's gonna feel so real, amazing, and epic. It's just going to be a very different, new and cool experience.

Published on April 3, 2024

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.