The college experience is a trying time for any young adult as the comforts of life at home finally give way to a semblance of adulthood.
For most, it’s the first time being self-sufficient, and the first year at school can be challenging.
Throw in being world-famous with 1.7 million followers on Instagram and an Olympic gold medalist, and the college experience could be downright daunting.
For gymnast Suni Lee, the individual all-around gold medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the first year at Auburn University certainly presented some challenges.
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“Everybody knew who I was, so it was kind of hard for me to leave my house,” Lee told WHD News Digital about arriving in Auburn. “People found out where I lived. They were knocking on my door. Like, there’s a lot of ups and downs to it, but I love Auburn and I love the Auburn family.
“Everyone at Auburn is so nice, so sweet, super supportive. The meets are all sold out. So it was really exciting last year.”
Lee’s first season at Auburn was a resounding success. She became an NCAA champion on the balance beam, an SEC champion on the bars and runner-up in the NCAA in the all-around.
Lee was named NCAA first-team All-American, SEC Freshman of the Year and All-SEC in her first year with the Tigers.
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She also has become the 10th most valuable NIL athlete in college, which includes her latest partnership with Clif Bar and the VOICEINSPORT Foundation, which aims to help expand participation among women in all levels of sport.
“I’m partnering with Clif and the nonprofit organization VOICEINSPORT Foundation to help close the opportunity gap in sports and support women at critical development stages of their sports journey,” Lee said. “Clif is pledging funds to accelerate the VOICEINSPORT advocacy program and support the establishment of 20 VOICEINSPORT Foundation advocacy chapters and 20 Title IX trainings on school campuses across the United States.”
Lee told WHD News Digital she struggled with “imposter syndrome” during her first year at Auburn as she attempted to do something that had never been tried before.
Lee is the first gymnast to compete at the college level after winning the gold medal in the individual all-around at the Olympic Games.
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“The pressure, I think, was what got to me because going from an Olympic gold medalist to competing at college is two different things,” Lee said. “And I think everyone just expected me to kind of go to Auburn and win everything.”
“And in the back of my head, I’m like, ‘I shouldn’t have even won the Olympics. Like, I didn’t deserve to. The other girls should have won.’”
Lee said the “imposter syndrome” partially stemmed from the circumstances of the 2020 Olympics when superstar Simone Biles withdrew from multiple competitions.
Biles entered her second Olympic Games with sky-high expectations as she was routinely referred to as the greatest gymnast of all time.
But Biles withdrew from multiple events — citing her mental health and the “twisties” — including the all-around competition, which Lee won.
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“I think that had something to do with it,” Lee told WHD News Digital. “Just because, the years before in Olympic trials and all of that stuff, it was like, ‘I’m competing for second because we all knew Simone was going to win.’
“So every single time I go into a meet, me and my coach were like, ‘We’re just competing for second. We’re competing to win bars.’ And bars is one thing that I wanted to win. So going into the Olympics, I’m like, ‘OK, [I’m] just competing for second and competing to win bars and hopefully medal in anything else we can get and obviously team.’ That was just the mindset that I think I just let get too far into my head.”
In the time since winning the gold medal in Tokyo, Lee had been unsure if she wanted to continue competing at the highest level, undecided if she wanted to try for the 2024 Olympic team in Paris.
Last week, Lee made her decision, announcing on social media that the upcoming season at Auburn will be her last as she attempts to make the Olympic team for 2024 and defend her all-around title.
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“In the back of my mind, I think last year, just kind of watching all of the girls compete at world championships, it just kind of got me more excited,” Lee said. “And I think, in the back of my mind, I always tell myself that I haven’t reached my peak yet, and it’s not time for me to be done competing for Team USA.
“And also, I just want to go out there and prove to myself that I can be able to do it. Because at the last Olympics, I kept convincing myself that I shouldn’t have won. And I think this time I want to go into the Olympics better than I was last time and to do it for myself and my coaches because it’s once in a lifetime. And I just didn’t want it to be once in a lifetime.”
She’ll attempt to do so significantly more popular than at her first Olympic Games and with the world now aiming to knock her off the throne as opposed to Lee seemingly coming out of nowhere.
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Lee knows that there will be a different level of attention on her in Paris now that she’s a household name, but she also says being a gold medalist doesn’t change the amount of work required to defend her title.
“I think in some aspects I kind of have to look at it differently because last time I wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist. … I have to work and work and work until I can’t anymore,” Lee told WHD News Digital.
“I think with the physical aspect, of course, I have to just keep pushing, working, being better than I was yesterday. And with the mental just going in with ‘I’m Suni. I’m not going to do anything more, anything less, and I’m just going to go out there and do what I’m supposed to do.'”