How Sunny Choi turned her hobby into an Olympic dream

In "Quick Questions," Bustle asked female leaders for advice on everything from the best coaching they've received to how to deal with stress. This week, Olympian Sunny Choi talks about her breakdancing career, her recovery routine and how she's getting ready for the Summer Olympics.

Everyone has those moments when they dream of quitting their boring office job to pursue a hobby full-time. Some people enjoy knitting or making jewelry and they want to start an online business. For 35-year-old Sunny Choi, breakdancing was her dream that turned from hobby to career.

Choi has been breakdancing (or "breakdancing") for over 17 years. After her first dance with friends in 2011, when she graduated from Wharton, she never stopped, even when she landed a straitlaced office job. By day, Choi is the director of global skin care creative operations for Estée Lauder. By the end of the night, she was winning the competition with her signature dance moves and lively stage presence.

Choi quit her job as soon as breakdancing was officially recognized as an Olympic sport in 2022. She won the U.S. Nationals in May 2023 and went on to become the top women's break player in the United States and the first American woman to qualify for the Olympic break team, which will make her debut at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

She also stars in the April documentary Samsung x Paris 2024: Open Always Wins - Breaking the Boundaries , which traces breakdancing's roots in New York City to the world stage.

Choi said this additional attention is exciting for the Breaking community because it shines a spotlight on decades-long traditions and culture. The urban dance style originated in the Bronx in the 1970s and took its name from the "break" in a DJ song.

“One of the really important messages in Breakthrough is authenticity,” she said. "I hope that's reflected in the Olympics - that this breakthrough is really about celebrating everyone and all our differences."

Below, Choi talks about life before her breakthrough, the pressure before the Olympics, and the mentality she brings to the dance floor as she competes for gold.

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How did you start breaking?

I first saw Breaking around 2007 when my brother showed me a video on YouTube. I thought it was cool but ignored it because who thinks anything their brother shows them is cool?

He started doing gymnastics first, in fact, I used to take him to his high school practice club when I wasn't doing gymnastics. It wasn't until I was in college and saw it firsthand that it caught my attention, so I gave it a try with some friends. I started dancing all the time as a creative outlet and then I started competing in 2012.

Did your past as a gymnast prepare you for your breakthrough?

Breakdancing is very different from gymnastics, so I try not to use any of those moves while dancing. Most importantly, gymnastics taught me body awareness and soft skills like determination and perseverance.

When did you realize that breaking could be a full-time career?

When I started competing, I traveled around the country and had some success, but it was just because I wanted to better myself. I was convinced that I didn't want it to be my job because I was worried that I would lose my passion if it became my livelihood.

Historically, the U.S. hasn't had many break opportunities either, and I had never considered breaking full time until it was announced for the Olympics.

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What is it like to leave your corporate job?

It's a bittersweet feeling because I've been working full-time for 10 years in my business career and it almost feels like I'm throwing it all away. In my head, I thought, "This is going to be a big moment," but then I just closed my laptop and thought, "Okay, this is so anti-climactic."

What type of music do you play?

The DJ picked the music for us and then you walked out and danced. At a recent event, the DJ performed a remix of Kendrick Lamar's "Not Like Us." He turned it into more of a breakbeat, which meant he looped the song. Everyone is super excited.

Is your dancing improvised or improvised on the spot?

I plan some combinations ahead of time to ensure I hit the technical difficulty points of the judges, but sometimes this gets overlooked. I also have a lot of signature moves. The whole point of breaking is to take something and make it your own.

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How do you deal with stress?

I have a bad habit of bulldozing all day long without taking a break. One of my therapists suggested that I take 10 seconds between tasks to focus. It forces me to check my energy levels to make sure I'm not at 10%.

I also do hot flow yoga. It’s good for mobility, which is really important, but it’s also good for my mental health.

How did you feel when you qualified for the Paris Olympics?

He breathed a sigh of relief. I felt so much pressure from the outside and the inside to qualify for the Olympics, and when I saw the scoreboard and realized I did it, I could finally breathe, you know? Most of the time, it doesn't feel real.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.