Rodrigo Varela/Getty Sunisa Lee
Gymnast Sunisa Lee certainly understands performing under pressure — she stepped into the 2021 women's Olympic all-around finals at the last minute and won gold. But, nothing could've prepared the champion for her stint on Dancing with the Stars.
Lee chatted with PEOPLE Tuesday night at the Sports Illustrated Awards, where she was honored as athlete of the year, and admitted that both the Olympics and the reality show competition came with challenges.
"I don't think anything will ever compare to the work I put into the Olympics," she said, "But I have to say, probably Dancing with the Stars [was harder]."
The 18-year-old, wearing a black dress embellished with an oversized red flower applique, explained that after years of perfecting her sport, learning an entirely new skill presented challenges: "I didn't expect it to go that way, and when I had to go into the gym every single day — or go into rehearsals, I was like — 'Why is nothing clicking?' So it was definitely harder that way."
Lee also tipped her hat to a different kind of challenge: mental health — which has been underscored since her teammate Simone Biles opted to bow out of several Olympic events.
"I think she did open the door for the rest of us," she told PEOPLE of Biles' courage. "It's a really hard topic for everybody to talk about, but when it's coming from Simone — the GOAT — everybody knows her and respects her, it must mean a lot."
As the first Asian-American woman to ever win gold in the Olympic all-around, Lee also understands the importance of being a role model to others.
"It's definitely an honor, because there are so few Asian-Americans at the Olympics from the United States, so it's definitely an amazing thing to say that I accomplished," Lee said.
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Honored alongside fellow Olympian Caeleb Dressel on Tuesday, Lee gave a heartfelt speech while accepting her athlete of the year award.
"This is so surreal. I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported me and come along with me throughout my journey because it has not been easy," said the teen.
After the show, further shared her gratitude on Instagram, saying, "Thank you to everyone who has supported me along this journey. I hope to be an example to those who have a passion for something, but don't always have the tools and support system needed to do so. Remember you don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. This year has been a dream come true and it's just the beginning."
Also during the awards show, Tom Brady was presented with the sportsperson of the year honor, while the Atlanta Braves won team of the year.