No two paths to the Olympics are ever the same, but something feels especially unique about Sunny Choi’s. A former competitive gymnast and Ivy League grad-turned-executive at Estée Lauder, 35-year-old Choi is now one of the inaugural athletes competing in breaking (colloquially known as breakdancing) this summer in the 2024 Olympics.

Choi discovered breaking in college, and she doesn’t understate the sport’s role in her life. “Breaking has been the catalyst for so much of my personal growth,” she tells SheKnows, though it took her years to trust herself and her talent enough to do it full-time. It wasn’t until 2022, after Choi finished second at the World Games, that she took the leap.

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While it wasn’t an easy move, it was clearly the right one, and not only because Choi is now Olympic-bound. “When I was working in corporate, it’s almost like you’re rewarded for showing up and being a robot, not having emotions, not letting any of that get in the way, just working, working, working, working,” Choi reflects. Breaking, she says, is the opposite. “As a breaker, it’s all about self expression,” she explains. “It’s about being you and figuring out who that person is and what that person looks like on the floor and what that person looks like off the floor too, because it all combines. It’s all one, because this is an art. It’s a dance.”

Choi appreciates that breaking requires her to tap into the truest, deepest part of herself, because her life hasn’t always allowed for that. From childhood up to the corporate job, Choi remembers struggling with mental health as she pushed herself to chase the conventional idea of success.

“I was in every single AP class you could possibly enroll in, in my high school,” Choi remembers. “I was a really high-performing gymnast. I got into an Ivy League. I went to Wharton. I didn’t even want to do business, but it was because I knew I’d be financially stable afterwards.” Looking back, Choi can see the pattern. “I had been for so long suppressing my personal desires in order to check off all the boxes that I thought would make me successful in life… I was just trekking forward, shoving things aside, putting those blinders on and a little happy face and showing up to work every single day.”

The pattern took its toll as Choi experienced “cycles of burnout and depression,” she says. “It was just really, really tough.”

She started therapy, where she learned, first and foremost, the vocabulary that helped her express her struggles for the first time. “Growing up in a more conservative household within an immigrant family,” Choi says, “we didn’t talk about mental health, so I didn’t know how to talk about it… I didn’t even know that this was something that you were supposed to talk about.”

While the topic is less taboo now, Choi notes that even today, not all communities are completely open about it. For her part, Choi now makes mental health a priority. In addition to therapy, she also “resets” by going on no-phone walks with her dog and her boyfriend, and by taking 10-second “micro breaks” throughout the day to check in with herself. Hot vinyasa yoga is also a good way to quiet her brain. “It’s a really good hour where I’m just, like, sweating my existence out, and so you can’t really think,” she says.

Another mental health tool? Cooking, especially sweet treats. Choi recently partnered with the Incredible Egg to share the recipe for one of her favorites, a frozen custard, and for the brand’s upcoming Meant to Be Broken campaign, which she says speaks to her own non-linear journey. “It’s about making those mistakes,” she says. “It’s about not seeing those as failure, but seeing it all as lessons and opportunities.”

That fear of failure was perhaps the main hurdle that kept Choi from embracing breaking. “Finally choosing myself and choosing what was going to make me happy — that’s kind of been the theme of my journey to the Olympics,” she says now. “Really digging deep and figuring out what it was that was stopping me and getting over that.” Now she’s heading to Paris, fully appreciative of everything it took to get here. Whether she comes home with a medal or not, “in my eyes,” she says, “there’s no way I can fail at the Games.”

Before you go, check out our favorite mental health apps:

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