AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — After the regional final came a familiar scene for the older sister. She could tell it had become a routine by then, this dance Suni Lee does with herself. Go pose for all the photos? Or slip out of the arena, unscathed by lost time and mental exhaustion, but leaving all those loving fans feeling unrequited?
“Her safety officer,” Shyenne says – that prelude alone is to the point of uncovering the degree of Suni’s surprising school presence – “would be like, ‘God help us, Suni. Try not to get it done. You will get held for 60 minutes.’” But Shyenne witnessed this at Auburn vaulting’s new meet in Huntsville, as well. She knew the outcome.
Suni appeased the crowd.
“I think she feels some type of guilt saying no,” Shyenne says. “I think she feels for them. She just wants people to feel good.”
Lee’s freshman year has been characterized by that tension between her sense for the influence she has as a role model — a sense that’s well beyond her 19 years — and the yearning to just be a 19-year-old. That was always going to be difficult after her Olympic title last July, meaning instant celebrity status as the first all-around gold medalist to compete in NCAA.
Her remarkable but trying season ended this week at the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Throughout the Year of Suni Lee, her support system has found various ways to help her find joy through the anxiety and impostor syndrome of competing with unprecedented expectations.
“I hate to use the word normal,” said Alison Lim, one of Lee’s coaches back home in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Whatever, that seems not super appropriate. But keeping life kind of normal. We’re still stressing about exams. We’re still turning in homework at the 11th hour.”
RITES OF PASSAGE
The visits to Los Angeles last fall were supposed to be about gymnastics training. Instead, Jess Graba quickly found he was most useful as an adulting coach.
Lee’s schedule on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” was so busy, she barely had time to practice her sport. It took 45 minutes to drive to and from her two-hour rehearsal sessions.
It was the least she has ever trained in a 20-week stretch.
“Gymnastics is kind of her sanctuary,” a space to “just play around,” said Graba. “She didn’t get a chance to do that. So she did struggle with her mental health a little bit because of all the expectations but no release.”
He’s Lee’s Olympic coach and the brother of Auburn coach Jeff Graba. Lee began training with Jess when she was 6, so his new title as a makeshift dad worked smoothly. Suni’s father, John Lee, was paralyzed from the chest down after falling from a ladder in 2019, so traveling is a challenge.
The first time Jess landed in Los Angeles to visit, Lee was busy with rehearsal. He agreed to bring her coffee the next morning. When he arrived, he found Lee trying to hang up a load of damp laundry. The dryer wasn’t working, she told him. Jess checked the machine and found piles of lint that had accumulated over several weeks. “She was running that dryer for probably hours,” he said, “and it wasn’t getting anything dry.” Lee needed a lesson in lint traps.
Los Angeles was a daunting setting to experience independence for the first time. Jess had fun with it. Their coffee and lunch outings included pep talks about time management. He prepared her for her first red-eye flight. He taught her how to properly store food in the refrigerator. (“Don’t leave the spoon in there!”)
Lee’s rites of passage back in Auburn often involve driving. When she parks at her building, she often uses street spaces rather than the parking lot. That’s taboo on weekdays. “You may want to observe your signs,” Alison Lim, one of Lee’s coaches back home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Jess Graba’s wife, has said after multiple towed car ordeals.
She’s happy Lee is having those learning minutes. They’re an update that it’s OK to screw up – throughout everyday life and vaulting. The unexpected tension of worldwide acclaim can consume. “It’s unknown domain at this moment,” Jess said. “Everyone anticipates that she should be amazing constantly, and afterward in the event that she commits an error they expect something should be off-base. Rather than: This is aerobatic. These things occur.”
MOMENTS TO HERSELF
Every morning, Lim texts Lee a quote. It’s a ritual she discusses with self-consciousness. “I could be completely missing the mark,” she says. “Hopefully it helps. If it doesn’t that’s fine.” But the joy, for Lim, is in the search for a timely aphorism and the thought that goes into each discovery. On some days, Lim is on a tough-love crusade. But she knows Lee enough to recognize when she might need reassurance instead.
“You get what you focus on,” Lim often writes. “So focus on what you want.” Tuning out distractions is the recurring theme these days.
Everyone in Lee’s support system has their own way of helping. For Lim, the quotes. For her sister, it’s keeping her “sane.” They talk every day. Rarely gymnastics. They share a love of fashion and Justin Bieber, dating back to childhood dance sessions to “Baby.” Suni saw him in concert this semester.
For Jess, it’s journaling.
Lee started when she was a beginner for Jess at Midwest Gymnastics. The entries were simple: “I want to do good today.” With age, she began sharpening the focus and ambition. She wanted to be an Olympian. The day before a meet, she wrote specific goals. On meet day, she discussed them with Jess.
She made one vital change at Auburn: Now she writes immediately before a meet begins.
“Just to help calm herself and get the nerves or anxiety out on the paper,” Jess says. Home or away, the applause is always louder for Lee. She can feel the eyes on her.
“She enjoys the groups and she prefers all that adoration,” Jess says. “However, at times you’ve quite recently got to have a second for yourself. On the planet for her at the present time, she in all likelihood will not get numerous minutes for herself.”
He can tell when the journaling works. Her personality shows more. From a young age, she was “not the easiest kid to coach, and that’s on purpose.” Jess remembers once when she was struggling to execute her Yurchenko double full vault in practice. He told her if she can’t consistently hit, he would have to simplify it for the next meet. Lee stomped to the other end of the gym, aghast, and told Lim, “I think Jess is serious. I think he might pull this.”
She was cranky. She stuck her next three landings. Years later, that vault helped her win gold in Tokyo.
The Grabas embrace that negotiation with her, when she’s at her most brazen. Jess always encouraged her to keep her childhood journals to remember that simple enthusiasm, the moments that make competition transform back into a space “to just play around.”
Asked what Suni Lee has brought to Auburn, Jeff Graba countered the typical “grit and determination” idea. “Lightness,” he said, “and an air of enjoyment.” She and teammates give one another crap. “There are definitely side jokes among the girls about Suni getting towed,” Lim said.
Lee laughs along at her mistake. These things happen.