Quick Question

How Sunny Choi Turned Her Hobby Into An Olympic Dream

She’s been dancing for over a decade. Now she’s taking on a global stage.

Quick Question

In Quick Question, Bustle asks women leaders all about advice, from the best guidance they’ve gotten to how they deal with stress. This week, Olympian Sunny Choi talks about her break dancing career, her go-to recovery routine, and how she’s getting ready for the Summer Games.

Everyone has a moment when they dream about quitting their boring office job to pursue a hobby full-time. Some people love knitting or jewelry making, and they hope to start an online business. For Sunny Choi, 35, her hobby-turned-career pipe dream was break dancing.

Choi has been break dancing — or “breaking” — for over 17 years. After dancing with friends for the first time at the Wharton School of Business, where she graduated in 2011, she never stopped, even when she got a buttoned-up office job. By day, Choi was Estée Lauder’s director of global creative operations for skin care. By night, she was winning breaking competitions with her signature dance moves and bubbly stage presence.

Once breaking was officially recognized as an Olympic sport in 2022, Choi took the leap and quit her job. She went on to win the U.S. Nationals in May 2023, then became the top women’s breaker in the country and the first American woman to qualify for the Olympic breaking team, which will be on the books for the first time at the 2024 Paris Games.

She also stars in the documentary Samsung x Paris 2024: Open always wins - Breaking Boundaries, released in April, which traces break dancing’s roots through New York City and now on a world stage.

According to Choi, the extra attention has been exciting for the breaking community, as it shines a spotlight on the decades-long tradition and culture. The urban dance style got its start in the ’70s in the Bronx, and it gets its name from the “break” in a DJ’s track.

“One of the messages that’s really important in breaking is being authentic,” she says. “I hope that comes across at the Olympics — that breaking is really about celebrating every individual and all of our differences.”

Below, Choi talks about her life before breaking, pre-Olympic stress, and the mentality she’s bringing to the dance floor as she goes for gold.

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How did you get into breaking?

The first time I saw breaking was when my little brother showed me a video on YouTube around 2007. I thought it was cool but brushed it off, because who thinks anything their little brother shows them is cool?

He started breaking first, and I actually used to take him to his high school breaking club when I didn’t have gymnastics. It wasn’t until I got to college and saw breaking in person that it caught my eye, so I tried it with some friends. I started dancing all the time as a creative outlet, and then I began to compete in 2012.

Did your past as a gymnast prepare you for breaking?

Breaking is so different from gymnastics, so I try not to use any of those moves when dancing. More than anything, gymnastics taught me body awareness and soft skills, like determination and grit.

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

When I started competing I was traveling within the country and having some success, but it was only because I wanted to get better at breaking for myself. I was convinced that I didn’t want it to become my job because I worried I’d lose my passion if it became my livelihood.

Historically there also haven’t been many opportunities for breakers in the U.S. I never considered breaking full-time until it was announced for the Olympics.

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What did it feel like to leave your corporate job behind?

It was bittersweet since I’d spent 10 years working full-time in my business career and it almost felt like I was throwing it all away. In my head, I was like, “This is going to be a huge moment,” but then I just shut my laptop and thought, “Well, that was anti-climactic.”

What kind of music do you perform to?

The DJ picks the music for us, and then you just walk out there and dance. At a recent event, the DJ did a remix of “Not Like Us” by Kendrick Lamar. He turned it into more of a breakbeat, meaning he looped the song. Everyone got super hyped.

Are your dances freestyle and improvised on the spot?

There are some set combos that I plan ahead of time to make sure I’m hitting the marks for technical difficulty points for the judges, but sometimes that goes out the window. I have a lot of signature moves, too. The whole point of breaking is to take something and make it your own.

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How do you cope with stress?

I have a bad habit of bulldozing through the day without taking a break. I have a therapist who suggested I take 10 seconds in between tasks to recenter. It forces me to check my energy levels to ensure I’m not running on 10%.

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

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

Relieved. I had felt so much pressure externally and internally to qualify for the Games that when I saw the scoreboard and realized I made it, I could finally breathe, you know? Most days it doesn’t feel real.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.