Content warning: There are mentions of anti-Asian violence in the following piece.
Suni Lee may have already achieved her lifelong goal of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, but that doesn't mean she's slowing down anytime soon. The 18-year-old gymnast became the first Hmong-American to earn the prestigious honor at the Tokyo Olympics after she whipped up an impressive floor routine last minute. She competed for the gold medal when fellow U.S. athlete Simone Biles pulled out of the individual all-around to prioritize her mental health.
Since she took home the gold, Suni has been committed to furthering her education at Auburn University in Alabama, where she majors in business marketing and competes on their gymnastics team. She also performed on season 30 of Dancing with the Stars, where she made it all the way to the semifinals. While Suni's star power continues to shine, she's using her platform to speak up about causes she's passionate about. In a recent interview, she opened up about her personal experience with anti-Asian hate after being pepper-sprayed by a stranger. The attack comes amid the rise of anti-Asian attacks in the United States. Between mid-March and early August, Stop AAPI Hate received nearly 2,600 reports of anti-Asian incidents across the country.
In sharing her story, Suni has become a voice for her community and generation. "I learned that being a public figure also comes with other responsibilities and it's an honor to use my voice towards positive change," she tells Seventeen.
What has gymnastics taught you about different areas of your life?
Gymnastics has taught me work ethic, drive, and to work hard for the things you want to accomplish in life. You'd think that after accomplishing a lifelong goal that things would slow down, but The Olympics changed my life overnight. I always knew I wanted to do college gymnastics, but I got the opportunity to be on Dancing with the Stars and couldn’t pass it up. Between rehearsals, schoolwork, and gymnastics practice, I leaned on my prioritization and organization skills to get me through.
What has been a stand-out moment for you in 2021?
The Olympics, of course! Being able to accomplish what I did at the games and really step up to the plate affected my faith in myself. I always knew I could do it, but I try not to second guess myself after seeing what I've been able to achieve. It only gets in the way!
You’ve recently used your platform to condemn attacks against the Asian community. What drives you to use your voice to speak out?
To be honest, when I shared my own personal story I had no idea it would get so much attention and at first, it was a bit daunting. But getting notes, letters, comments, calls, and DM’s about how speaking up helped others to either do the same or pay attention to real issues that matter made me feel good about sharing such a personal story. It was very scary for me at first as I am really a private person but the comments and DM’s and outreach from others made me realize what an impact speaking up can have in helping others. I love being a gymnast — it's what makes me the happiest — but I learned that being a public figure also comes with other responsibilities and it's an honor to use my voice towards positive change.
What advice do you have for teens who want to use their voice but don’t know where to start?
Start small, speak up to a close friend or family member and remember you aren’t alone. Just be true to yourself and be proud of where you came from. Being unique is our greatest gift.
What does being a Voice of the Year mean to you?
It's such an honor and I am so thankful for it. I've loved reading Seventeen since I was young and to be honored by a publication I look up to means so much.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo credit Getty Images, designed by Yoora Kim.
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