From gold to orange and blue

Olympian Sunisa Lee enters new routine as star student

Published: September 09, 2021
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Olympic gold medalist and soon-to-be Dancing with the Stars contestant Sunisa Lee recently entered a new routine—shifting her focus from gold to orange and blue as a “star” student at Auburn University.

Much like her competition in Tokyo this summer, being in college at Auburn is a role she’s eagerly anticipated for many years—five, to be exact.

“I've been committed for about five years. So, I came here (to Auburn) about every year leading up to this year because I would come to camps all the time and I'd just come visit Jeff and train here,” she said, referring to Auburn Gymnastics Head Coach Jeff Graba, who along with his twin brother, Jess Graba, coached Lee in her successful run to the gold in the women’s Olympic gymnastics all-around.

“So, it was really exciting when I finally could come here because it was like, I'd been waiting for so long,” Lee added. “I've known about Auburn for a very long time.”

When Lee—nicknamed “Suni”—arrived on the Plains for the first time as a student last month to start the fall 2021 semester, her experience reaffirmed her decision.

“Auburn just feels like home,” said the St. Paul, Minnesota native. “I love it here. Everybody's so welcoming. The people here are just amazing, and the environment is just amazing as well. You’re going to get all the help that you need. You're going to feel loved by every single person here.”

Since beginning her time as a student, she said she’s enjoyed some down time “just being somewhat normal” following the Olympics and has also really enjoyed meeting her fellow Auburn gymnastics teammates.

“When you're an elite gymnast, it's so hard because you have to sacrifice so many things and you can't hang out with friends—like you have to do online school,” said Lee, who is majoring in business marketing at Auburn. “So, coming here it feels like a relief because like I get to go out with my friends and like have fun. And the (gymnastics) team here is just amazing. When you're competing by yourself, you're literally just by yourself all the time. So, when I'm here, I just feel like I'm a lot happier and I'm just really excited.”

And although most everyone knows her on campus and she’s asked to take the occasional photo with a passerby, Lee says it’s nice to not have a global audience watching her every move.

“I feel like I'm not going to put all that pressure on myself anymore,” she said. “It’s just so relieving not having to be perfect every single time. And I know many people were like, why is she coming to Auburn? Like she could be doing so many other things. But I just wanted to have fun and find the reason why I loved gymnastics so much.”

While at Auburn, Lee says she’ll still rely on many of the same traits that helped her achieve gold.

“It has prepared me a lot,” she said of her Olympic training. “I definitely am a lot more prepared, and I feel like I've matured a lot since being an elite gymnast because you kind of have to at a young age. You're always living without your parents. You're traveling everywhere. So, I kind of had to grow up. And I think that helped me coming here a lot because I'm not gonna have my parents and I have to do everything by myself.”

Being willing to take on new challenges, no matter how hard, also prepared Lee for yet another opportunity that will cast her back in the national spotlight. Just recently, Lee was approached by the hit TV show Dancing with the Stars to be a cast member for the show that premieres Sept. 20.

“It's definitely going to be very different,” she said of the show. “But I know that it's not going to be as difficult as anything I did in the Olympics or leading up to the Olympics. So, I know that I'm good in that area, but I think it's more mental because I'm not a very good dancer. So, I'm excited to see how this plays out and I'm really excited to find out who my partner is and just how the whole thing will go. I think it'll be very fun.”

She added with a laugh that she’s been trying to visualize it all in her head “hoping that like I can become a dancer overnight.” She said she knows it’s a big responsibility and that she hopes she can follow in the same footsteps of so many other former Olympic stars like Simone Biles who performed well on the show.

Lee admits some might wonder how she can handle it all while studying as a student and preparing as a member of Auburn’s gymnastics team.

“And I'm like, I don't even know myself, but I'm just going to try and see if it works,” she said.

But her goals don’t stop there.

“I know that I want to try for another Olympics, want to make another World (Championships competition), and I also really want to help Auburn in gymnastics, of course.”

And when the spotlight shines again on Lee in Auburn Arena, she’ll be ready to put on a show for her home away from home.

“I definitely didn't think that I would have so many supporters from Auburn, but now that I do it's just honestly amazing,” she said. “I can't wait for gymnastics season to be here. The arena is going to be going crazy. Yeah, I'm excited.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.