Suni Lee says she was pepper sprayed in racist attack: 'I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do'

·3 min read

Gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee has revealed in an interview that she and several friends were recently the target of an anti-Asian attack.

In an interview with PopSugar published on Wednesday, the 18-year-old Lee described what happened to her and her friends (who are all women of Asian descent) just a week before the interview took place. While they were waiting for an Uber during a night out, a car pulled up to them and started yelling Asian slurs out the window. Lee said she got pepper sprayed on the arm as the car sped away. 

"I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off," Lee told PopSugar. "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."

Lee hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up as part of a very close community of Hmong Americans. She told PopSugar that she still has a tough time understanding vicious and racist attacks like the one she encountered. However, she knows that speaking up about it is important, even if it makes her uncomfortable. 

The anti-Asian hate that Lee encountered is just one example of thousands of incidents that have happened in the U.S. over the last 20 months. Racially motivated attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have surged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Stop AAPI Hate, there were over 9,000 racially motivated attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities between March 2020 and June 2021. Over 4,500 of those incidents occurred in the first six months of 2021. Sixty four percent of the reported incidents were verbal attacks like the one Lee endured, and 63 percent of all the incidents were reported by women. 

THE KELLY CLARKSON SHOW -- Episode 1035 -- Pictured: Suni Lee -- (Photo by: Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Suni Lee and a group of friends were recently the target of an anti-Asian attack. (Photo by: Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Lee discusses mental health

Lee, who has taken a temporary detour from her freshman studies at Auburn to compete on "Dancing with the Stars," also discussed her mental health during the interview. Training all alone during the pandemic was difficult for her, since she typically thrives in a team environment. Just days before the Olympic Trials, she was thinking about quitting. 

She didn't quit, and we all know what happened — numerous standout performances at the Olympics helped the U.S. women's gymnastics team win a silver in the team all-around, and earned Lee a gold in the individual all-around and bronze on the uneven bars. 

Since then, Lee has been learning how to handle the pressure and stardom that come from Olympic success. She's shy and soft-spoken, and often has to be around people when she'd rather be alone. Between school, "Dancing with the Stars" practice, and media responsibilities, she's been too busy to tend to her mental health. When she posted about that on Instagram, the response from her followers helped her find her footing. 

"When I shared that I was feeling down, so many people reached out and either sent positive messages of encouragement or told me they were feeling similarly and not to feel alone," Lee told PopSugar. "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."

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