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Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee says she was pepper-sprayed in racist attack

“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do," Lee said.
Suni Lee on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" on Oct. 7, 2021.
Suni Lee on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" on Oct. 7.Weiss Eubanks / NBCUniversal

Suni Lee, who made history at the Tokyo Olympics this summer as the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition, said she was recently the victim of anti-Asian violence.

Lee, 18, was waiting for an Uber ride with friends, all of whom are of Asian descent, she said in an interview published Wednesday on Pop Sugar. A car drove by, and people in it began shouting racist slurs and telling Lee and her friends to "go back where they come from," she said.

As the car sped off, one of the passengers pepper-sprayed Lee's arm, she said.

Her representative confirmed the incident in an email Thursday.

“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” Lee told Pop Sugar. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen.”

Sunisa Lee of Team United States poses with her gold medal after winning the Women's All-Around Final on day six of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 29, 2021.
Suni Lee of the U.S. poses with her gold medal after she won the women's all-around final on Day 6 of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 29.Jamie Squire / Getty Images file

Lee, who grew up in a tight-knit Hmong community in St. Paul, Minnesota, vaulted onto the world stage after gold medalist Simone Biles withdrew from the Games for mental health reasons.

Lee became the fifth U.S. gymnast in a row to win gold in the all-around competition.

The kind of attack that Lee described is more common than previous reporting suggested, according to data published this year by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit group that tracks incidents of discrimination and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The group documented 3,800 incidents from March 2020 to February, up from 2,600 the year before.

Nearly 70 percent of people who reported being targeted were women.

A co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, has said the pandemic — along with widely reported episodes of violence aimed at Asian seniors — was likely to have prompted more people to report the kind of harassment they had long endured.