Sunny Choi: Leap of faith

“This is your calling.”

Sunny Choi’s mother, Jung-In Choi, sent her daughter a clear message.

“I’m converted,” she told Sunny, who was then still balancing two worlds — corporate America and breaking — while pursuing a dream her family hadn’t completely embraced yet.

Sunny Choi had been waiting for that breakthrough moment. It finally came after a session of teaching breaking to attendees of a tiny church camp. Her mom had actually volunteered Sunny to teach at the camp, which was based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

“She watched me teach these kids how to break and saw how excited the kids were to learn,” Choi, now 35, remembers. “She was like, ‘I can see this is what you love to do.’”

At the time, Choi was only breaking to the extent her life would allow. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, she was working as director of creative operations at cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. Thanks to a heavy workload, Choi the breaker could only train or compete four days a week. It was a common sight to find her answering work emails at practice, buying Wi-Fi for long plane rides and working for hours-long stretches in the air.

“I was squeezing in as much as I could and basically working to fund my breaking,” Choi says. “But it wasn’t sustainable. I was really breaking myself down from being too busy.”

At the same time, Choi was still trying to get her family fully on board with her burgeoning breaking career.

“For my family, it was kind of seen as a novelty,” Choi says. “To them, it was just like a hobby."

“Sometimes, my mom would call me and ask, ‘When are you gonna have kids and a family, get married and, you know, move on?’ They saw it as a phase, which is not how I thought about it.”

Choi had been a lifelong athlete. As a young girl in suburban Nashville, Tennessee, her dream was to become an Olympic gymnast. She watched in awe as U.S. stars like Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug performed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She convinced her mom to enroll her in the gymnastics program at the local YMCA.

“I was going to win gold at the Olympics,” Choi remembers.

But after nearly a decade of success with gymnastics marred by a few brutal knee injuries, 18-year-old Choi and her family decided to pull back from the sport. They were wary of committing to the grueling life of two-a-day practices and homeschooling that typically builds Olympians.

“We decided to go down a more traditional pathway,” Choi says.

That led Choi to Wharton and toward the corporate working world. But after trying out breaking one night at the famed Gathering at the Rotunda on Penn’s Philadelphia campus, Choi was hooked. It fulfilled her. She cherished the chance to “be upside down again,” which reminded her of her gymnastics days.

Over the next decade, as her traditional life developed, so did Choi’s breaking exploits. She trained, competed and turned herself into one of the best female breakers in the United States — all with her family thinking of it as a hobby.

“I didn't fully have my family support even in my kind of successful life trajectory,” Choi remembers. “There was always something I could have done better.”

“The Olympics brings credibility in a way that breaking has never had before,” Choi says. “Even when they initially announced it, I was like, 'no way.' That's not possible because it's born from the streets, and so many Olympic sports feel very elegant. And breaking has this grit and rawness."

“So, it actually took quite a while for me to even wrap my head around it before finally committing to it.”

Choi went all-in. Chasing an Olympic dream for the second time in her life, ramping up the training even more — while still working the Estée Lauder job. She traveled to competitions and climbed up the world rankings. The Olympics suddenly felt realistic.

"Life is giving me a second chance," Choi thought to herself.

In July 2022, Choi competed at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the highest-level competition she’d ever faced in breaking. She delivered a dazzling performance, earning a silver medal and announcing herself to the world as a contender to make it to the Olympics.

What meant even more to Choi was that her entire family watched on TV and supported her feverishly.

“That kinda gave me this confidence that I didn't have before that,” Choi says.

I thought that maybe this could really work out, and I might even have their support along the way.

And when her mother finally uttered those golden words — "this is your calling" — Choi finally felt that full support.

Support in tow, Choi called her mom in January 2023 and delivered some major news: She was quitting her job and committing to breaking full-time. If Choi wanted to live up to those Olympic dreams that were born in 1992, she needed to go all-in.

“My mom went quiet on the phone for a little bit,” Choi recalls. “There was a scary moment, like ‘Oh, no.’"

“Then, she was like, ‘You know I'll support you.’”

That fall, Choi competed at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, needing to win gold to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. She edged out Colombia’s Luisa Tejada (B-Girl Luma) in the final, clinching gold and a spot in Paris.

“When I saw the scoreboard change, and it said that I won, it was just like a really heavy burden had been lifted,” Choi remembers. “I was feeling so much pressure to see this thing through because I’d given up so much for this.”

Choi’s entire family — mom, dad (Kyung-Ju Choi), three brothers and nieces — will join her in Paris to watch their resident family Olympian.

“I'm looking forward to not just the Games, but also just everyone being together,” Choi says.

Victor Montalvo: Born to be a b-boy

Victor Montalvo was born to break.

His father, Victor, was a pro breaker who learned the sport in Mexico. So were Montalvo’s uncle, Hector Sr., and his cousin, Hector Jr.

At the ripe age of 6, Montalvo was already learning the art of the sport. By 10, he was taking it seriously and unknowingly training himself to one day become the first-ever U.S. breaker to qualify for the Olympics.

When 6-year-old Montalvo started to dabble in breaking, he was enthralled.

“It was just something about the music, the vibe of it and how challenging it was,” Montalvo, now 29, says.

Montalvo remembers his dad, uncle and cousin trying to teach him how to master the windmill, a fundamental breaking power move in which the breaker rolls their torso in a circular path on the floor while twirling their legs in a V-shape.

It’s a doozy.

“I'm a really stubborn person,” Montalvo says. “I remember trying to learn the windmill, and I just couldn't get it. I was getting so frustrated, but it excited me because it was so challenging. That’s why I fell in love with breaking.”

Born and raised in Kissimmee, Florida, Montalvo tried other sports, and his athletic prowess was crystal clear.

“I was pretty good at the high jump,” he remembers. “I actually broke a couple of poles because I landed on them. I did a lot of distance running, too. I was really good at that.”

But eventually, Montalvo gravitated to the sport his father and family had mastered years before.

“It was so much more fun,” said Montalvo, who likens breaking to creating your own character in a video game.

You put who you are as a person into the dance. You create your own aura, your styles, your concepts. You get to have this big imagination.

By his teenage years, it was clear that Montalvo’s unbridled passion and superior athleticism had combined to make him a force in the breaking world. So, short on money, his father built him a studio in their backyard.

“It wasn't the prettiest studio, but it did the work,” Montalvo remembers. “It had no walls, just concrete and a roof. That’s it.”

His father’s dedication touched Montalvo from an early age. And that love didn’t just show up in the backyard. It sent Montalvo all over the world to compete.

Montalvo’s first international event required him to travel to The Netherlands as a 17-year-old lacking a passport.

“My dad was the only one that really supported me going to Netherlands for this really big breaking event,” Montalvo says. “He didn’t have money, and he was backed out on rent. But he still got me the passport. He had to borrow more money from a friend.”

That trip planted a crucial seed, and Montalvo started to win. Over the next few years, he skyrocketed up the global breaking rankings, winning the prestigious Red Bull BC One event in both 2015 and 2022.

Montalvo’s life then changed last September when he won gold at the 2023 WDSF World Breaking Championship in Leuven, Belgium. That earned the Kissimmee kid a historic first spot on the inaugural U.S. Olympic breaking team.

“It was honestly the best investment my dad made for me, because I gave back ten times more,” Montalvo says. “I just appreciate him and my family for all the support that they’ve given me.”

His father won’t be able to travel for the Olympics, but his cousin and cousin’s wife are coming with Montalvo to Paris. Montalvo, who has been to the city numerous times, is eagerly awaiting “the people, the architecture, the bread and the cheese,” but mostly having family in the stands.

“It’s really exciting because I've only had my family watch me dance live in Orlando,” he says. “It gives me so much energy, just my family being there and watching me.

“It’s going to be an amazing experience.”