AUBURN, Ala. — Sunisa Lee curls up in a chair after practice one afternoon last month, her knees pulled tightly against her chest. The gymnastics star is wearing a pink hoodie with the words “happiness project” across the front, a reference to the apparel company by the same name that donates a portion of proceeds to mental health organizations and says its mission is to “show the world that it’s okay to not be okay.”
She’s discussing life after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer: the sense of “impostor syndrome” she says she feels; how she showed up to her freshman year at Auburn last fall unmotivated by gymnastics; the intense pressure to perform every week, which has led to anxiety attacks.
“There’s just been so much doubt like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have won the Olympics, blah, blah, blah,’ and it really hits my soul,” she says.
When Lee left Minnesota last summer, she had just turned 18 years old and wasn’t expected to challenge Simone Biles as the superstar of the games. Maybe Lee would sneak in a silver medal in the all-around competition or perhaps even a gold on bars. But when Biles shocked the sport by withdrawing from multiple events, citing her mental health, Lee suddenly found herself in the spotlight.
Not only did she rise to the occasion, she also won gold in the all-around. Just like that, Suni Lee became an overnight sensation.
A fall appearance on ABC’s primetime show “Dancing with the Stars” expanded her profile into popular culture, making her a full-fledged celebrity in just a few months. If she expected a normal college experience as she took on her next challenge of being a student-athlete at Auburn, she’s received the opposite.
“I would have thought I’d gotten used to it by now,” she says, “but I haven’t.”
A few months ago, she attended a basketball game and worked up the nerve to say hello to arguably the university’s most famous alumnus: NBA Hall of Fame forward-turned-television analyst Charles Barkley. But as Lee attempted to introduce herself, Barkley cut her off and boomed, “Girl, I know who you are!”
Lee was in awe. “That’s the GOAT of Auburn,” she says. Barkley invited her on his podcast where he peppered her with questions, including how she pulled off the Nabieva maneuver for the first time in NCAA history — a difficult release on the uneven bars named after Russian world champion Tatiana Nabieva.
When the interview was over, Barkley told co-host Ernie Johnson, “I can’t imagine being that famous on a college campus.”
Surprised, Johnson asked, “Weren’t you?”
“Not like that,” Barkley said.
Lee is doing something that’s never been done before. She’s the first Olympic gymnast to compete in college having won gold in the all-around. It’s led to her drawing huge crowds wherever she goes and a never-ending stream of requests for pictures and autographs, creating an extraordinarily complicated life for a college freshman.
“There’s so many people watching me,” she says.
Her teammates are supportive and coaches are keeping a close eye on Lee, doing their best to block any unwanted attention. But it’s a tall order, with Thursday’s NCAA Regional in Auburn promising to be another in a long line of sellouts. Even if the team doesn’t advance to next month’s NCAA Championships, she could have the opportunity to compete as an individual by achieving the top all-around or event score(s) by a gymnast on an eliminated team. If she were to win an individual NCAA title, she would be just the second gymnast to pair that accomplishment with an Olympic gold.
Amid the chaos of superstardom, though, she has found much-needed support — a type that’s new to her in a sport that’s long put her in solitary practice.
“I needed to be a part of a team to find my love for the sport again in order to keep getting better,” Lee says. “I needed to somewhat be normal.”
OK, SO MAYBE normal is a moving target when you’re a freshman with 1.7 million followers on Instagram. Lee has been on campus five months and has yet to take an in-person class, opting instead for online learning. She avoids going into restaurants and had to stop attending basketball games because the attention was too much.
The gym has always been Lee’s safe space, but after leaving “Dancing with the Stars” and returning to Auburn full-time in the fall, she said she wasn’t motivated to be there. She heard whispers that she didn’t deserve her gold medal — how she wouldn’t have won if Biles hadn’t withdrawn from competition. It made her feel like an imposter.
“The first couple of weeks here … it was like, I didn’t want to do gymnastics, I hated it,” she says.
Eventually, she and coach Jeff Graba had a heart-to-heart. He was sympathetic but firm.
“If you quit,” the coach asked, “what are you going to do with your life?”
Lee had no answer. Gymnastics is her life, and she wasn’t ready to give it up. If anything, she wanted to prove her doubters wrong.
“He helped me flip the switch,” Lee says. “I was like, ‘This is what I needed.'”
If not for Graba, it’s difficult to imagine how this college experiment would have any chance of success. Their families have known one another for years, with Lee attending camps at Auburn from a young age. Graba’s identical twin, Jess, has been Lee’s personal coach for more than a decade. Not only do the brothers look and sound alike, they have the same style of coaching, encouraging frank feedback from their gymnasts.
Their ability to work in tandem is a big reason Lee chose Auburn.
“Because she was my brother’s athlete, our communication happened quickly,” Graba says. “I don’t call it arguing — she’ll call it arguing sometimes — but we have clear communication with each other.”
Seated a few feet away, Lee nods along, grinning.
Graba recalls a discussion with Lee about her bar routine a while back. She was emphatic about her plan, but Graba wanted to simplify things. Unlike the Olympics, college is less about the difficulty of maneuvers as it is execution. So they went back and forth, back and forth, until Graba finally did the math out loud, adding up Lee’s desired routine, which came out to a starting score of 11.5.
If you can’t do better than a 10, Graba reasoned, what’s the point?
Graba says it takes most gymnasts two years to get comfortable enough to have a debate like that.
“That was practice No. 2,” he says. “The first day was stretching and the second day it was on.”
Together — and in partnership with Lee’s agents — they’ve navigated an unusual freshman year, which included leaving for Los Angeles and “Dancing with the Stars” while the rest of the team prepared for the season. Graba says the deal all along was to help facilitate the best experience they could for Lee, so they didn’t fight it. When she has endorsement opportunities, they try to set aside time during the team’s off-days.
Still, it’s a lot to manage — a constant challenge.
“I worry all the time for her,” Graba says. “She’s handled it extremely well, but I don’t think people realize the intense amount of pressure that she’s under.”
AS LEE’S STAR grew brighter in Tokyo and L.A., her future teammates in Auburn were put in an awkward situation. While they were practicing and building bonds with one another during the long lead-up to the season, their incoming teammate was a mystery: She was out of sight.
Drew Watson, a senior and former All-American, admits there was some trepidation about Lee coming in and how it might impact the team dynamic.
“You don’t want to say she’s like everyone else because she’s not,” Watson says. “She’s just coming off the Olympics. She’s famous. Not saying that other people aren’t, but it’s different.”
While it’s unrealistic to say Lee is just one member of a 19-person team, Auburn has done its best to live up to that ethos. During pre-game introductions, she’s introduced fourth because gymnasts are brought out from youngest to oldest and in alphabetical order.
There’s no big to-do on the part of event staff. There’s actually no formalized special treatment for her whatsoever.
“A lot of the places that we go, they announce every girl’s name and then they announce Suni as the gold medalist and she gets a huge round of applause,” Graba says. “That’s not what she wants. She doesn’t want to be separated like that.”
The fact is Lee had never been part of a team. It sounds bad out loud, Lee says apologetically, but in the world of elite gymnastics she didn’t have to share. If she didn’t want to talk to anyone in the gym, she didn’t have to. And in a college setting that wasn’t going to work.
So she made a conscious effort to speak to others and make connections.
“Suni did a very good job of coming in and proving herself,” Watson says, adding that there weren’t any noticeable growing pains as they all got to know one another. “I think she’s done a really good job of staying engaged and really coming through and pulling for the team, which I really admire.
“We’re used to it now. If she acted better than us it would be different, but she doesn’t act that way at all. So as much as we can, we try to help her mentally stay engaged.”
Lee’s teammates have had to adjust to the brighter glare of fame, as well. In the past, Auburn might sell out a meet a few hours before doors open. Now they’re selling out a few days in advance. For the first time, they began offering standing-room-only tickets this season. More students attended the Alabama meet than the Kentucky basketball game, which is one of the biggest draws every season.
“I would say definitely this year it’s taken off,” Watson says.
Samantha Peszek, who won silver in the 2008 Olympics and now covers college gymnastics for ESPN, has been around the program this season and can feel the difference, equating the level of fan engagement to that of football. The awareness and support, she says, “is unprecedented.”
“Whenever you have a superstar on your team, I think it just elevates the entire team,” Peszek says, adding that she feels Auburn has been underrated in recent years and done in by bad luck. “But I think this year, it just feels like they’re putting it all together.”
Peszek’s hope is that Lee will help grow the sport as a whole.
Graba sees that happening first-hand.
“What Suni has done is brought in non-gymnastics fans to see what it’s about,” Graba says. “And when they get in the arena and they see what Derrian [Gobourne] and what Drew and these other girls are doing, they become gymnastics fans.
“It’s basically like a prairie fire. It’s just spread all over the plains here in Auburn and across the country.”
Graba used to think the walk from the visitor’s locker room to the team bus was a safe space, but then he opened the doors at Georgia and was met with a wall of fans.
“I could not get through the crowd,” he says. He can’t believe that they’ve had to hire security this season. “No one is there to see me, but for the athletes, it’s a completely different level of scrutiny that nobody was ready for.”
Graba tried to prepare his gymnasts for the onslaught. He did more team-building exercises this summer than at any point during his career. He brought in multiple sports psychologists. And still it has surpassed anything he could have expected.
He half-jokingly calls it “the Auburn circus.” It’s fun but difficult. After practice one day last month, Graba looked around at his team and saw gymnasts who were exhausted by the grind.
“That’s not what they signed up for,” Graba says. “That’s not what Suni signed up for. They’re just gymnasts. … I don’t think anybody understood that you signed up to lose all your privacy.”
After posting a record team score against Florida, Auburn lost to Alabama. A week later, the Tigers lost again to Michigan. Then, at the SEC Championship earlier this month, they finished in a solid but unremarkable third place.
Still, there’s a feeling among the team that at any moment they can turn things around.
The message from veteran leaders on the team is to stay the course.
“Just tighten up, sharpen up, do the things that you need to do and don’t let your attitude be defined for you,” Watson says. “You’re in control.”
AS THE TEAM prepared for a meet one day earlier this season, Lee jumped off the balance beam and noticed her hands were trembling. Her breathing was labored and her heart was racing. What she’d been whispering to herself was now coming through at full volume: I can’t do this.
She found Graba and told him she might not be able to compete.
Then, right on cue, one of her teammates shouted: “Get her journal!”
Lee grabbed a pen, put her head down and started writing. She didn’t look up until she’d filled two full pages with notes.
“Feeling anxious right now … I need to calm down … I need to breathe … Why am I feeling this way?”
Re-reading her self-examination, she felt her breathing steady and her hands shaking less. Assistant coach Ashley Johnston took one look at her and the journal and remarked, “Wow, you really needed to write that down.”
“I just put so much pressure on myself that I get to the point where I really need a break,” Lee explains months later.
Instead of burying her emotions, she’s learning to work through them, to “Have fun,” as she wrote in her notebook, and reminding herself that “You are good enough.” She’s confident enough that she was willing to snap a picture of those messages and share it on social media.
— Sunisa lee (@sunisalee_) February 26, 2022
“I think it’s important because a lot of the times people forget that we’re human,” she says. “I think people just look at me as a famous person, they don’t actually look at me as a person and to kind of see that we can make mistakes, too.”
Along with the heightened expectations, there’s also more time in the public eye. She used to compete only five times a year. Now she’s heading into her 12th meet in three months.
Which all begs the question: How sustainable is this? Can she keep competing next week, next month, next year?
Right now, Lee says, she’s telling herself that she’s young and there will be time to rest later.
“My body’s where I need it to be at,” she says. “My mental’s getting there. And if I can just put it all together right now, then it can all come together in the end.
“But I also just know that there’s so much more left in me. And I just want to prove to myself that I deserved to go out there and win at the Olympics.”
Her hope is that taking on the challenge of competing at Auburn will pay off in Paris in 2024. Recently, Lee says a thought dawned on her, which she told Graba: “I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential yet. I have so much more in me.”
She feels the same way about her team.
They’ve been through so much, she says. Lee looks at all they’ve accomplished to this point and gets excited because “we still gave away a lot of things.”
“It’s really cool,” she says. “Because now it’s like if we were to actually put everything together and just went out there and do what we normally do, imagine where we would be.”
She’s giddy just picturing it — celebrating a national championship with her teammates.
Just a few more steps and she’ll be there.
But as she wraps up the interview and prepares to leave, she’s stopped. An administrator checks the time and tells Lee to go out the back way.
Dozens of little girls are about to arrive for after-school practice and if they spot Lee, nothing will stop the shrieking and mayhem that follows. There will be pictures and autographs and there’s no telling how long it will be before she can break free and retreat from the spotlight that seems to follow her everywhere she goes.
Normal is using the front door. Suni Lee’s life is now far from that.