19-year-old Hmong-American gymnast Suni Lee is not just an Olympic gold medalist, but also a record-breaker, being the third woman of color in a row to receive gold for the U.S. Lee, who competes for Auburn University, is also the first Olympic champion to compete at a collegiate level.
Lee reflects a trend among gymnasts who have diverged away from competing in elite programs in favor of competing in NCAA gymnastics. Among others include gymnast Jordan Chiles for UCLA, Jade Carey for Oregon State and Grace McCallum for the University of Utah who will be joining Lee at the national championships.
A benefit of competing for the NCAA is that college athletes are allowed to use their name, image and likeness (NIL) to make money. However, this was not the only motivation for Lee.
“Even without the NIL, I knew I wanted to go to college anyway just because I had come to find my love for the sport again,” Lee said. “I had to get out of the elite world just because it is so different. This is so much more fun, and having the team be so supportive.”
Only a freshman at Auburn University Lee is already making her mark, leading her team to the championships for the first time since 2016, in addition to collecting her fifth perfect score of the season. The camaraderie between Lee and her teammates is evident, with Lee remarking that her teammates all celebrated her first score of 10 in the sublime uneven bars during a competition against Louisiana State University.
And, her gold from the Tokyo Olympics has cemented her celebrity status on campus. While leaving a competition in Georgia, Lee is swarmed around 300 fans surrounding the bus, reports Kare 11. Huge crowds follow everywhere Lee goes, and she is met with constant requests for photos and autographs, according to ESPN.
With great success, also comes great pressure. Lee has been very vocal about her struggles with mental health, revealing that during the initial meets of the season she experienced anxiety attacks.
“The first couple of the meets of this season, I was a wreck because it was like constant screaming my name and like, ‘Suni, can you take a picture?’ or ‘Can you sign an autograph?’ while I’m trying to concentrate,” Lee said.
Lee has experienced imposter syndrome following her Olympics win as well.
Journal writing is an outlet Lee uses to manage her anxiety, and in a Tweet, she shares a page from her journal rife with positive affirmations. In it she writes, YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH. Have faith. Be GREAT.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, submitting a story or making a financial contribution.