TOKYO — Sunisa Lee dreamed of becoming an Olympian, but competing alongside someone widely considered the best gymnast ever, she had not necessarily thought of winning the all-around gold medal. Usually, Lee’s competitions felt more like a race for second place, so she expected the Tokyo Games to present an opportunity to win the silver.
But then Simone Biles withdrew from the event, citing the need to focus on her mental well-being, and Lee clinched the gold medal by a narrow margin on her final routine of the night, extending the streak of U.S. gymnasts who have won the Olympic all-around title.
Immediately after, she received praise on social media from celebrities, such as LeBron James and Reese Witherspoon, and darted around to media obligations. Now with three Olympic medals — the coveted all-around gold plus a silver with the U.S. team and a bronze on bars — she is sure to see a flood of endorsement opportunities.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Lee said, “so I feel like right now, everything blew up in my face, and I don’t know how to take it all in and react to it.”
But the first item on her post-Olympics agenda remains the same: college gymnastics. She committed to Auburn long ago and hasn’t wavered from that plan. Lee will become the first Olympic all-around champion to compete in the NCAA, and she will arrive on campus Wednesday, eight days after her final performance in Tokyo.
“That’s my way of celebrating: going to college,” she said.
The previous Americans in this streak of Olympic champions — Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Biles — exchanged their college eligibility in favor of pursuing professional opportunities. With new NCAA rules that allow athletes to profit from their fame with their name, image and likeness, Lee didn’t have to make that decision. She can benefit financially from her success on a massive stage and hang on to her commitment to compete for Auburn.
“It’s so surreal because I never thought I could be an Olympic champion, and here I am,” Lee said. “And then I feel like there are going to be so many more opportunities that come with this.”
Some U.S. Olympians will participate in the Gold Over America Tour headlined by Biles. The tour will visit cities from September through November, and athletes should be able to receive compensation through these appearances while maintaining their college eligibility. There’s no competitive piece in the event that would make this a pay-for-play opportunity, which is still prohibited under NCAA rules.
Tokyo Olympian Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd (Florida) are set to participate in the tour before they head to college in time for the season, which starts in January. Lee said “there has been talk” about her taking part but she hasn’t made a decision and knows she couldn’t miss too many college classes. For the most part, Lee will be able to take advantage of these types of opportunities without turning professional and giving up her college eligibility.
“I don’t want to miss that college experience,” Lee said. “I do want to go to college and have fun and kind of get away from this elite atmosphere — just because it’s so crazy and I know that college is going to be way better.”
College is often viewed as a reprieve for elite gymnasts. They practice fewer hours and perform simpler routines. The focus shifts toward the team competition, usually held as dual meets, and gymnasts often say that switch makes the experience particularly enjoyable.
Lee will head to the highly competitive SEC as the most high-profile gymnast to compete at Auburn, where she’ll be coached by Jeff Graba, the twin brother of her current coach, Jess Graba. About 25 years ago, the brothers opened Midwest Gymnastics, Lee’s longtime club in Minnesota. Lee said she always wanted to attend Auburn because of that connection, even though Jeff Graba left the club in 2003 to pursue Division I coaching opportunities.
The Tigers have finished the season in the top 10 only once, and Lee immediately will elevate the program’s potential. She’s already on a billboard with Auburn’s logo. In the past, Lee might have ditched her collegiate plans to turn professional after her all-around gold, but now she can make money while competing for Auburn.
“Thank goodness for the NIL,” Jeff Graba recently told AL.com, “because she doesn’t have to make a horrible decision.”
Lee said she’s looking forward to college because of the opportunity to be “normal” — or at least “more normal than I am right now.” She’ll live in a dorm and have more free time than she did while training as an elite gymnast pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
But Lee still will be a star on her campus and the most prominent freshman in college gymnastics history. The postponement of the Olympics prompted some gymnasts, such as Chiles, to delay their college enrollment, so this season’s freshman class will be packed with top-tier gymnasts. Fellow U.S. Olympic medalists Grace McCallum (Utah) and Jade Carey (Oregon State) also will start competing in the NCAA. So will Tokyo alternates Leanne Wong (Florida), Kara Eaker (Utah) and Emma Malabuyo (UCLA).
Lee hasn’t discounted the possibility of returning to elite competition, especially after winning the bronze medal on bars. That’s her best event, and she didn’t perform to her potential in the apparatus final. Lee has thought about participating in future world championships and maybe even the 2024 Paris Olympics. But she will make those decisions later. For now, she’ll pack up quickly and move to Auburn, giving her body some rest as she prepares for the less-taxing world of college gymnastics.
“I think, honestly, it’ll make me a lot happier, competing for a team and not individually like this,” Lee said. “It’s scary. And I just feel like I want to have some fun in college. Elite gymnastics has just been so mentally draining and exhausting.”