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Meeting Suni Lee: Auburn’s Olympic gold medalist finds peace and balance on the Plains
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AU Gymnastics

Meeting Suni Lee: Auburn’s Olympic gold medalist finds peace and balance on the Plains

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Gymnastics: Practice

After winning the all-around gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, Suni Lee prepares to be an Auburn student, a collegiate gymnast and a “Dancing with the Stars” contestant.

Suni Lee pulled at the door, but couldn’t get it open. She gave the handle another yank. Locked. The Olympic gold medalist was stuck outside — until someone came to pop the door open for her from the inside. The swipe cards on campus can be tricky.

And after all, she’s still just a freshman trying to figure out her way around her new school.

Lee walked in the building with a bookbag over her shoulders on Friday afternoon, feeling a lot like a normal freshman and loving it. She was meeting up for a sit-down interview with the Opelika-Auburn News. Thanks for doing this, someone said to her. “Of course,” she smiled behind her mask.

The interviews are the easy part. By now she’s gotten used to cameras and recorders being pointed at her, after her superstar performance on the world’s stage. She had just done Good Morning America earlier that day. She doesn’t get nervous for TV interviews anymore. She likes live ones now because they’re only one take, where the taped ones have to be perfect and she has to repeat things over and over.

“I was definitely very nervous for the first couple, but now it’s starting to get easier because I have to do it like every other day,” she laughed, after she sat down.

Right. Auburn’s gold-medal freshman is anything but a normal college student. And the typical first semester of classes doesn’t have Dancing With The Stars on the schedule.

But that’s Lee’s mission here at Auburn: To level the extraordinary with the ordinary.

She wants to achieve great things but to keep her balance — and to prove to younger girls that there’s more to life after the Olympics.

That part is important to her.

Meet Suni Lee, the Auburn Tiger. It’s bigger than gymnastics.

Gymnastics: Practice

Auburn freshman Suni Lee works out Aug. 27 at the McWhorter Center in Auburn.

“I just think people don’t really understand, especially since I’m an Elite, they don’t understand how much sacrifice it took, and having to do online school, missing hanging out with friends — that’s what I came to college to do,” she explained. “I came here to have fun and to get an education — because I didn’t know what was going to happen after the Olympics, or during the Olympics, so I already had my mind set on coming to Auburn.

“I just really wanted to get that college experience, because I felt like I was just competing by myself the whole time, and practicing by myself. I just wanted to have fun in college.”

Lee pulled out of school in the junior high, when it became clear that she had a special talent. She moved to online schooling instead so she could spend more time training and chasing the Olympic dream.

Everyone knows her story from there: She grew up in Minnesota practicing on a balance beam that her dad built for her in the backyard. In 2019, her dad fell from a ladder in an accident that left him partially paralyzed. In 2020, COVID-19 shut down the world and put the Tokyo Olympics in peril. Then she broke her foot in practice. It all could’ve fallen apart for her, but she persevered, and when she finally made it to the Olympics, she helped salvage silver for Team USA after Simone Biles’ surreal exit, then stepped up in storybook fashion to win gold in the all-around.

What most people don’t know is the part Auburn played all along.

Lee said she first came to Auburn for a camp when she was in seventh grade. She committed in eighth grade and came to Auburn every summer for camps ever since then. She figures she knows Auburn better than most people realize. She’s known many of her new teammates for years. At a convocation event this month in Jordan-Hare Stadium, she looked right at home holding a shaker in the student section.

And she got her Olympic rings tattoo here in the Auburn area and that’ll stay with her forever.

“I really just loved it,” she said, on her first impressions of Auburn back then. “It did feel like home. And I already liked Jeff a lot so I knew that I wanted to be here.”

Suni Lee arrival 20210810 _SL28956 edited.JPG

Aug 10, 2020; Auburn, AL, USA; Suni Lee arrives at the McWhorter Center. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics

Auburn head coach Jeff Graba is the twin brother of Lee’s coach in Minnesota, Jess Graba. “They’re the same but they’re also very different,” Lee laughed. In their first few workouts together at Auburn, Lee has playfully squabbled with Jeff over what she can and can’t do in her routines at Auburn meets. The challenge for her in college will come with the weekly schedule, but in meets the truth is her routines will have to be watered down for NCAA judges, and many of the high-scoring skills at the college level will be easy for her coming from the Elite ranks.

“Do you want to do this routine?” she said he would say to her in the gym.

“That’s so easy. I don’t want to do that. I’ll do this routine,” she’d say back, and go over it. She’d flip and twist and twirl — mesmorizing skills that she can make look effortless.

“That’s going to be like a 10.9 start value,” he’d shake his head.

“How?! I’m not even doing anything in it!”

Lee will still work on her Elite skills in practice, though, keeping in shape for another try at the Olympics in 2024.

She and the Graba twins are working together on that plan. That’s another reason why Auburn is the perfect place, as her college coach and her club coach will be able to work well together.

They’re all about balance, too. Lee said Jess often encouraged her to spend time away from the gym, to never over-obsess, and to try to be more normal.

“It’s one of the reasons why I love Jess so much,” Lee said. “Because he’s always been the type to, like, ‘Oh yeah, go out and have fun. You deserve it.’ He pushes me in the gym, of course, but he’s also somebody that understands me so much.”

The gymnastics world hasn’t always been that way. In the United States, the sport is still climbing out of a dark era. For too long, young girls have been pushed too hard, too far, and even into the unimaginable.

“Just the whole Elite mentality, it’s always just the Olympics and gymnastics,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to do after that. People just think gymnastics is the only thing in the world. No. That’s why I wanted to come here, to just kind of look out to the real world a little bit, get a taste of what it’s like.

“I don’t know. I feel like it’s just so toxic.”

Lee’s carving a new path, using the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness rules. They were just put into effect on July 1 and they allow her to maintain her college eligibility while accepting endorsements from the Olympics — and making appearances on shows like Dancing With The Stars.

She loves gymnastics and she’s excited to compete again soon, but she wants to show that there’s life for girls outside the gym, too, and after it.

Suni Lee arrival 20210810 _SL28952 edited.JPG

Aug 10, 2020; Auburn, AL, USA; Suni Lee arrives at the McWhorter Center. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics

‘Why is she coming to Auburn?’ is the question she’d see all the time on social media, from national skeptics and even from Auburn fans worried it’s too good to be true.

This is why. This is who she is.

“Definitely,” she nodded. “That was one of the main goals, too, is to just show all the younger Elites that you can still go to the Olympics and go to college. You can still have something to look up to after. And I just really want to be somebody for the younger girls that they can just come and talk to me because I know when I was a Junior Elite or a Senior Elite, I was scared to talk to the older girls. So it’s really nice when they come to me and talk to me about how things are going and what they want to do, because it’s like, I can help them and I’ve been through all of it, and I also want them to have every opportunity they can get.”

Next, Lee will soak in her opportunity on Dancing With The Stars. This week, she’s moving out to Los Angeles for two months or so, or until she gets eliminated on the show. She’s taking online classes this semester with Auburn and will study out there. She came to campus for the start of the semester in August just to get settled and introduced and get started on the right foot. “I moved into my dorm and now I’m moving out,” she laughed and shrugged. But Dancing With The Stars will be fun and she’s excited.

And soon she’ll be back in Auburn for classes and college and football. She’s relieved that even if she goes all the way on the show, she’ll still be back in time for the Iron Bowl, at least.

Then in January, Auburn gymnastics opens its season. She’ll be there in Auburn Arena, she insists. And in her short time so far as a celebrity on campus, she’s told everyone else that she better see them there, too.

“Everybody here is so nice, and everybody here has just been so supporting and loving, coming up to me, telling me they’re big fans and stuff. It definitely means a lot to me,” Lee said. “It can be overwhelming because I’m still not used to it yet, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way, because I know that they’re going to be supporting me in the gym.

“And I’m like, ‘You guys better be at the meets.’”

Then everyone at Auburn will get their chance to meet Suni Lee.

She’s met Auburn, and she loves it.

“I knew I always wanted to come here,” she said.

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