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Break dancer Sunny Choi is focusing on mental health as much as physical in prepping for the Olympics

“Having to learn to be gentle and kind and compassionate with myself has been one of the most difficult, but also one of the best, lessons,” said the history-making athlete, who has struggled with depression.
Sunny Choi.
Sunny Choi will represent the U.S. at the Paris Games in the first Olympic breaking competition.Mike Coppola / Getty Images

Sunny Choi has a rigorous training schedule as she prepares to be the first female break dancer to represent the United States in the Olympics. She works with a strength coach and does hot yoga. She diligently practices her gravity-defying flips and dizzying head spins on the dance floor. But the real “game-changer,” she says, has nothing to do with physical conditioning: It’s the emotional strides she has made through talk therapy.

“I knew to be able to perform, I needed to work through my mental health concerns,” Choi said in a phone interview. “I’ve been able to really take the time to finally work through the issues rather than numb them and keep going.”

Choi, 35, has long had Olympic aspirations, though not in breaking, as her sport is now officially called. Born Grace Sun Choi in Cookeville, Tennessee, she was a serious gymnast until she suffered a knee injury as a teenager. It was also during her teen years that she first experienced periods of intense depression.

“I was a high achiever, still in high school, and doing gymnastics 25 hours a week, so I had no social life outside of that,” she said. “Coupled with having such high standards for myself, it went from periods of burnout to something much more extreme.”

But she didn’t feel like she could talk with anyone about it. Mental health challenges were considered taboo in her household, said Choi, the daughter of Asian immigrants.

“Seeking a therapist wasn’t seen as a normal thing,” she said.

It was in college at the University of Pennsylvania that Choi was introduced to breaking  — a sport created more than 50 years ago by Black and Latino youth at New York City dance parties. After graduation, Choi worked a series of high-pressure jobs while continuing breaking on the side, and she said that her cycles of depression kept returning. 

“I was a robot every single day. I felt nothing. I just showed up and did what I needed to do,” Choi said of her corporate work. “Dancing became so difficult because you can’t be a robot when you’re dancing — it’s all about expression and about being present.”

When it was announced in December 2020 that breaking would make its debut at the 2024 Paris Games, Choi had a choice: Should she continue in corporate America, where she was miserable, or should she focus exclusively on dancing?

Breakdancer Sunny Choi poses upside down.
Choi quit a corporate job to compete full-time.Harry How / Getty Images

As the pandemic unfolded — a collective trauma that prompted more open discussions about mental health — Choi decided to focus on self-care. She found a therapist she could see regularly. Then last year, she quit her job as the director of global creative operations for skincare at Estée Lauder — a move that she says put both breaking and her mental health first.

Choi views her therapy sessions as a critical part of her Olympics preparation. Her therapist, provided at no cost by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, is trained in both sports psychology and mental health, but Choi said their sessions have focused more on her mental health than on her mental performance. 

Their work together has helped Choi to structure her days better — she has learned to take 10-second “micro-breaks” with deep breaths so she doesn’t go from task to task for hours without stopping — and it has helped her connect more with her feelings. Choi said she rarely used to cry. Now, she allows herself tears, and that has opened up new parts of her personality when she dances.

“Rather than showing this single face,” she said, “I have more range of emotion now that I can work with.”

Therapy has also helped her confront her fear of failure and the unattainable expectations that she set for herself. 

“Having to learn to be gentle and kind and compassionate with myself has been one of the most difficult, but also one of the best, lessons that I’ve learned,” she said.

‘Tremendous growth’ in mental health awareness

Choi is one of an increasing number of elite athletes talking about mental health. 

In 2021, tennis’ Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing anxiety over media interviews and “long bouts of depression”; the same year, Simone Biles pulled out of the U.S. women’s team gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics, saying she felt like she “had the weight of the world” on her shoulders. Retired Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has also spoken about his depression.

“We’ve made tremendous growth in the last few years,” said Jessica Bartley, senior director of psychological services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “The more that folks are talking about their mental health, that continues to normalize and destigmatize in a way that’s really helpful.”

Other Americans competing in the Paris Olympics emphasized the importance of mental health in interviews with NBC News. Artistic swimmer Megumi Field said her synchronized swimming team works with a coach on the mental aspect of their sport, which helps the team stay focused but also helps them support each other emotionally. Sport climber Brooke Raboutou said she has “​​focused a lot on mental training in the past few years,” including through meditation and visualization, and said she wants to someday go into the mental health field to help other athletes. 

Since late 2020, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has increased its commitment to athletes’ mental well-being, offering resources that range from a 24/7 helpline to increasing the number of therapists who travel with athletes to competitions and to the Games, Bartley said. The helpline receives an average of eight to 10 calls a week from athletes all over the world, she added, and in 2023, the 15 mental health providers employed by the committee held about 6,000 individual therapy sessions with athletes. The committee also has a mental health registry of additional therapists who have experience working with elite athletes. 

Choi, one of the world’s highest-ranked B-girls, as female breakers are called, said there is no shortage of emotions as the Olympics approach.

“I’m feeling a lot of nerves and anxious,” she said. “I have moments where I feel proud, or I feel gratitude.” 

She said she wants to be remembered for making history in her sport, but also hopes she can serve as a role model to others who want to better their mental health.

“We all judge ourselves,” she said. “When I learned that it was OK to not be OK, I think things really started changing for me.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at You can also visit for additional support.