The college experience is a difficult time for any young adult as the comforts of home life finally give way to a semblance of adulthood.
For most, it’s their first time being self-sufficient, and the first year of school can be challenging.
Add to that the fact that you’re world famous with 1.7 million followers on Instagram and an Olympic gold medalist, and the college experience can be downright daunting.
For gymnast Suni Lee, the individual all-around gold medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the first year at Auburn University was certainly challenging.
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“Everyone knew who I was, so it was kind of hard for me to leave my house,” Lee told Fox News Digital of his arrival in Auburn. “People discovered where I lived. They knocked on my door. There are many ups and downs, but I love Auburn and I love the Auburn family.
“Everyone at Auburn is so nice, so sweet, super supportive. The meetings are all sold out. So last year was really exciting.”
Lee’s first season at Auburn was a resounding success. She became an NCAA champion on balance beam, an SEC champion on 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 has also become the 10th most valuable NIL athlete in college, including her latest partnership with Clif Bar and the VOICEINSPORT Foundation, which aims to increase women’s participation in all levels of sport.
“I am working with Clif and the nonprofit organization VOICEINSPORT Foundation to close the opportunity gap in sports and support women at critical developmental stages of their sports journey,” said Lee. “Clif is committing funds to accelerate the VOICEINSPORT advocacy program and support the establishment of 20 VOICEINSPORT Foundation advocacy chapters and 20 Title IX training programs on school campuses across the United States.”
Lee told Fox News Digital that during her first year at Auburn, she struggled with “imposter syndrome” as she tried to do something that had never been attempted before.
Lee is the first gymnast to compete at the college level after winning the gold medal in the individual all-around at the Olympics.
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“The pressure, I think, was what got me, because going from an Olympic gold medalist to college is two different things,” Lee said. “And I think everyone just expected me to go to Auburn and win everything.”
“And in the back of my mind I thought, ‘I shouldn’t have even won the Olympics. Like, I didn’t deserve it. The other girls should have won.’”
Lee said the “imposter syndrome” stemmed in part from the circumstances of the 2020 Olympics, when superstar Simone Biles withdrew from multiple competitions.
Biles went into her second Olympics with sky-high expectations as she was routinely dubbed 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 Fox News Digital. “Just because it was the years before in Olympic trials and all that stuff like, ‘I’m battling for second because we all knew Simone was going to win.’
“So every time I go to a meet, me and my coach were like, ‘We’re just competing for second. We’re in to win bars.’ And bars is one thing I wanted to win So when I get to the Olympics I’m like ‘OK, [I’m] just battling for second and battling for bars and hopefully winning medals in whatever else we can get and obviously a team.” That was just the mindset that I think I just let it get too far into my head.
In the time since winning the gold medal in Tokyo, Lee had doubts about continuing to compete at the highest level, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to try for the 2024 Paris Olympic team.
Last week, Lee made her decision, announcing on social media that the upcoming season at Auburn will be her last as she looks 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 seeing all the girls compete in world championships just got me more excited about it,” said Lee. “And I think in the back of my mind I always tell myself that I haven’t hit my peak yet and it’s not time for me to finish competing for Team USA.
“And I also just want to go out and prove to myself that I can 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 to the Olympics better than last time and do it for myself and my coaches because it’s only once in a lifetime. And I just didn’t want it to be once in a lifetime.
She will try to make this considerably more popular than she did at her first Olympics and as the world tries to knock her off the throne, unlike Lee who seems to come out of nowhere.
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Lee knows there will be a different level of attention for 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 it takes to defend her title.
“I think I have to look at it differently in some ways because I wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist last time. … I have to work and work and work until I can’t anymore,” Lee told Fox News Digital.
“Obviously I think with the physical aspect I just have to keep pushing, work and be better than yesterday. And with the mental just going in with ‘I am Suni. I’m not going to do anything more, nothing less, and I’m just going to go out and do what I have to do.’”