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Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee banking on more NCAA success

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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Sunisa Lee needed a break from the grueling, all-consuming world of elite gymnastics.

She wanted to go to school, and the ability now for college athletes to earn money through name, image and likeness deals made that an easy call.

The Olympic all-around champion who aims to defend her title in Paris in 2024 has capitalized on her still-newfound fame with appearances on “Dancing with the Stars” among other endeavors. The 19-year-old is no normal freshman.

“Even without the NIL, I knew I still wanted to go to college just because I needed to find my love for the sport again,” Lee said. “I had to leave the elite world just because it’s so different. It’s so much more fun and the fact that the team is so supportive.

The new NIL rules allowed him to turn his success in Tokyo last summer into financial security without sacrificing college experience and education. And without spending the whole day locked in the gym.

Lee helped lead the Tigers to the NCAA Championships April 14-16 in Fort Worth, Texas for the first time since 2016. She scored her fifth 10 of the season in the regional at Neville Arena, this one- here at the beam. to help Auburn overtake Kentucky.

The All-American placed first nationally on uneven bars — where she won bronze in Tokyo — tied for first on balance beam and second in all-around.

“I think if the Olympics were a year early and that happened, she couldn’t make that decision” to go to college, said Auburn coach Jeff Graba, whose twin brother Jess is Lee’s longtime personal trainer.

As Lee competes for NCAA titles, she also feels she has a lot to prove. Lee’s all-around gold came after favorite Simone Biles pulled out of competition due to mental health issues. Lee said she doesn’t think she’s reached her full potential yet and that’s indeed worthy of a gold medal.

“I think it’s something I just want to prove to myself, because I think I have a lot of doubts,” said Lee, a Hmong American from Minnesota. “And prove it to everyone, but especially to myself.

“I don’t want to look back and tell myself that I could have done so much more. I want to look back and know that I gave it my all and if I didn’t succeed, I didn’t succeed. But I gave it my all.”

Lee has a leotard line with GK Elite and a clothing line with Pretty Little Thing., which she follows while living in a dorm like other Auburn freshmen with roommate/teammate Sara Hubbard. She splurged on a car and her first designer bag, but mostly worries about spending too much now and not having enough later.

“I’m so scared to use my money,” Lee said. “I’m so careful with it because I have to be.”

She is still taking online classes and spent the fall in Los Angeles for the dance competition show before officially joining the Auburn team in December. Lee’s craving to appear on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ – she made the semi-finals with partner Sasha Farber – makes it “more exciting”.

“That just makes it interesting,” Lee said. “It’s really cool that I can do all of this at such a young age. But then I get scared. When I grow up, what am I going to do then? Because if I do everything now, what am I going to do in the future?

“But I don’t know, it’s really exciting.”

Lee also dealt with the sudden fame that comes with being an Olympic champion. She can’t just drop by the grocery store or have a leisurely dinner. She even stopped going to Auburn basketball games. It’s all part of the new normal for a teenager who isn’t quite used to the spotlight yet, but wishes to never be distant.

“It’s really tough, because even when grabbing food, people come up to her and say, ‘Here my baby. Take my picture. Sign my shoes,'” Hubbard said of her roommate. . “I think it’s just overwhelming. It’s kind of scary when a bunch of random people are just in your business.

But Graba and Lee’s teammates said in the practice gym and around them that she was just another Auburn gymnast. Dealing with high expectations is part of the challenge.

“She’s probably the one putting the most pressure on herself,” said teammate Cassie Stevens. “But I think she’s doing a lot better, listening to what we have to say. Like, just being you is good enough. It’s great actually.

But, added Graba: “You don’t win an Olympic gold without having that badass mentality.”

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