Soo Yeon Lee: Table Tennis Star Turned Hollywood Celebrity Coach

The Inspirational Women Series is a series of articles by the ITTF Foundation that supports and celebrates women’s participation in sport, as well as the courage they exhibit in challenging tradition gender roles and stereotypes.

Soo Yeon Lee is a model, an entrepreneur. She appeared in the renowned TV series Entourage and is the brand ambassador of Table Tennis club SPiN. She is the six-time Korea Republic National Junior Championship winner, and the coach for Hollywood star Susan Sarandon. She has given up her athlete career, thought she would never play again, but has found a way to indulge her passion for Table Tennis through coaching.

FEMpowerment articles often encourage women to pursuit their dreams, but very few tell the story after. What happens when your dream does not come true? The former Table Tennis star Soo Yeon Lee speaks up, about the pressure to succeed, realising her talent and answering to her true callings.


“I love the feeling of winning.”

Soo Yeon entered the world of Table Tennis by accident.

I’ve always been an athletic kid. I started to play Table Tennis in class. As the training and competition evolved, I fell in love with the sport.

Training can be harsh for young talent and Soo Yeon was no exception.

I trained so hard. A lot of times I could barely feel my body the next day. Even so I’ve never thought of giving up. I love winning. The feeling of winning makes everything worth it.

Her competitiveness and perfectionism were the driving force behind her early success, but also foreshadowed her later escape. At age 12, Soo Yeon has won her first National Junior Championship in Korea Republic with five more to follow. She has later trained under the supervision of Olympic Gold Medallist Hyun Jung-Hwa, and eventually joined the national team.

Everyone was happy for her, except Soo Yeon herself.

I’ve lost faith in me. Doesn’t matter how hard I tried, I felt I was never good enough. The mounting pressure took away all the fun in playing and I knew I had to stop. So I did. I packed my bags and went to New Zealand, and later to the US.


“There’s no shame in giving up.”

The society encourages us to stick to our dreams and expects us to be successful. We become cynical about other’s achievement and the constant pursuit of perfection is causing a great amount of anxiety.

Soo Yeon refused to let the society tell her what to do. One of the greatest lessons she has learnt as a pro athlete is that true courage means knowing one’s limit, choosing one’s path even when the majority points to the other direction.

There’s no shame in giving up. When something brings you nothing but stress, leave it. Take care of your mental health and be open to other opportunities that come your way.

When she packed away her rackets, Soo Yeon thought she would never play again. It was not until she started to coach in the US, has she realised the empowering nature of Table Tennis.

People respect me more when they noticed how much effort I have invested in the sport to get to where I am. Men would look at me and say they could beat me in no time, and how I enjoy the look on their face as they swallow the bitter defeat.

Meanwhile, and much to her surprise, Soo Yeon also made her debut into the modelling and entertainment world.

I never enjoy the spotlight, but this would be a great opportunity to use my skills and legacy to promote the sport. Table Tennis is my passion, it’s for everyone regardless of your age and gender. I want to share the benefit of the sport and this would be my way to stay involved.


“You can have more than one dream.”

So what happens when your dream does not come true? Soo Yeon answers the question with her personal journey.

It’s ok to have more than one dream. When one of them doesn’t work, move on to the next one. Finding new dreams or passions because the first one didn’t work doesn’t make you a coward or a failure.

Soo Yeon is now the celebrity coach in the US, not because she coaches Hollywood celebrities Oliver Stone, Jamie Foxx, and Susan Sarandon, but because of her dynamic coaching style.

I have a degree in Sport Psychology and Physical Education. I tailor my coaching style according to the students. Coaching is a very personal thing. You have to know what your students need and what would be the best way to teach them that.

Even though she is not competing professionally anymore, Soo Yeon remains active in the Table Tennis community through a different way. She is the founder of SOO&PONG, the child of her two passions – Table Tennis and fashion, and the familiar face in fundraising campaigns that use Table Tennis to promote positive social change. She is the role model that we have all been looking for, one that is not afraid to admit her weakness and shortcomings and rise up strong and tall to a new beginning.



Read the story of Anita Maharjan, the Nepalese Table Tennis player that smashes traditional gender roles.

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