Gymnast Suni Lee, who became the first Asian American woman to win the gold medal in the gymnastics all-around at the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, said she was the victim of a recent racially motivated pepper-spray attack.
Lee, 18, told Pop Sugar she was waiting for an Uber ride with friends, all of whom were also of Asian descent when individuals in a nearby vehicle shouted racist slurs and told the group to "go back where they came from," before one of the passengers pepper-sprayed the gymnast's arm as the car sped off.
Lee's representative also confirmed the incident in an email to NBC News on Thursday.
“I was so mad, but there was nothing I could do or control because they skirted off,” Lee said via Pop Sugar. “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.”
In the Pop Sugar feature, Lee described her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota in a tight-knit Hmong community and sudden fame after becoming the fifth consecutive U.S. gymnast to win gold in the all-around competition.
The nonprofit group AAPI Hate, which tracks incidents of discrimination and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said the recent incident involving Lee and her friends is more common than the previous reporting suggested, according to data.
The group said it documented 3,800 incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 2020 to February 2021, which was an increase of 2,600 from the previous year, and nearly 70% of the racially motivated attacks target women.
Russell Jeung, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as numerous reported episodes of violence aimed at Asian seniors, has prompted more individuals to report incidents of harassment than in previous years.