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Suni Lee recalls feeling helpless after being pepper sprayed in anti-Asian attack: 'There was nothing I could do'

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When Suni Lee, 18, delivered several breathtaking performances at the gymnastics individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics in July, it didn’t take long for the world to fall in love with her.

The first Hmong American to ever participate in an Olympic Games, her gold medal-winning attitude was contagious and continues to inspire a generation of young girls. Still, even a gold medalist isn't immune to the gross realities of anti-Asian hate crimes, most of which have been fueled by COVID-19 misinformation.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 22: Gymnast Suni Lee poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on November 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Olympic gold medalist, Suni Lee, revealed that she was a victim of an anti-Asian hate crime. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In a candid profile for PopSugar, Lee chronicles the ups and downs she's faced in her personal and professional career including her views on wellness, how she's channeling her power on this season's Dancing With the Stars and how a recent anti-Asian attack offered a troubling new perspective on life. 

Lee revealed that while waiting for an Uber after a night out with her girlfriends, all of whom were of Asian descent, a car sped by and yelled racist slurs, insisting they "go back to where they came from."

One passenger, Lee recalled, sprayed her arm with pepper spray before speeding off.

"I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off," she said. "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."

Taking control of her well-being has been difficult, Lee added, saying that in the last few weeks she's had several realizations about her mental health. 

"I'm only 18, living in L.A., and I have all of these expectations on me. On top of that, I put a lot of pressure on myself, so it's kind of scary,” she said, later adding, "It's OK to feel down sometimes. But what I've realized is that it's important to express your feelings and ask for help. In the past, I might have pushed on and not acknowledged the state of my mental health. But there's so much power in owning your feelings. It's not weakness, it's actually taking control."

“Nobody expected me to win the gold medal, so when I did, my life turned overnight," she said. "I definitely don't see myself as an Olympic gold medalist. It's crazy to think that. I still have a hard time letting it sink in.”

Like the true professional she is, Lee is learning to brush off the hate and instead focus on the magnitude of support she has around her, which now include her DWTS family.

"I was doing gymnastics for, like, 12 years, and I feel like I never had time to just do anything fun," Lee said of her decision to join the hit ABC reality competition. "I really wanted to try and find myself on this show, because I feel like everything got taken away from me in gymnastics."

Still, she admits even though she's "getting too caught up in my head that it's taking away the joy from the experience," she’s keeping her options open for the future — whatever that may look like.

"I don't know what to do with my life because I've never had nothing to work for," she said. "I'm still trying to find that one thing that I really want."

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