College Gymnastics Taught Me to Be on a Team, Be Less Shy

  • American gymnast Suni Lee earned a gold medal as the Tokyo Olympics’ individual all-around champion.
  • After the games, the 19-year-old took her talents to Auburn to compete for the Tigers in the NCAA.
  • Lee told Insider about shifting from the “individualized” elite level to “being a part of a team” in college.

Suni Lee has grown tremendously in her first year of college.

And a lot of the lessons she learned came from outside the classroom.

Shortly after winning gold in the individual all-around at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the superstar American gymnast took her talents to Alabama to compete on behalf of the Auburn Tigers at the college level.

Not only did she need to adjust to the different rules and styles of NCAA, but for the first time in her illustrious gymnastics career, she had to learn how to be part of a team.

Suni Lee.

Lee.

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez


“Being an elite gymnast, it’s so individualized,” Lee told Insider, adding: “I was always training by myself. And then when I went to Auburn, I had to learn how to share an event with other people or wait for other people.”

Lee explained that, even while preparing to compete in team events at the Olympics, she almost never practiced alongside her Team USA counterparts. And even when she did, she’d “always have my beam ready or my bar set ready” rather than pausing to watch her teammates perform.

But now, with the Tigers, Lee has worked hard “to learn everybody else” and become accustomed to their routines.

College gymnastics is incredibly collaborative and jovial, with gymnasts loudly cheering on their teammates, exchanging hugs and high-fives, and competing to accrue points for the entire group rather than exclusively for themselves.

Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee competes for Auburn at the 2022 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championship.

Lee competes for Auburn at the 2022 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports


“Being part of a team is definitely something that holds a special place in my heart,” Lee said, adding: “It’s really homey and I love it.”

The whole arrangement has helped Lee break out of her shell. She said she’s naturally “really shy” and needs a good amount of time “to open up to other people.”

But the Minnesota native says her Auburn teammates “helped me a lot” with learning how to navigate team dynamics and feeling comfortable speaking her mind.

Suni Lee.

Lee.

AP Photo/Michael Woods


“They all kind of brought me in because I did come to the school later than the other freshmen,” Lee said, referring to the fact that she matriculated after competing on “Dancing with the Stars” in the fall. “So it was all brand new to me … I was more nervous watching my teammates because I wanted them to do better than I did.”

“Just to see like the excitement on their faces whenever we would all have a good routine was something really special,” she added.

Lee enjoyed a historically successful inaugural collegiate campaign, racking up first-team NCAA All-America honors in the all-around, beam, and floor as well as a second-team nod on the bars.

She’s looking forward to her sophomore year, especially now that she’s more familiar with her surroundings and the hype around her arrival at Auburn has “calmed down a little bit.”

Suni Lee.

Lee.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports


“Now it’s like, I can go out to eat or I can go in public,” Lee said. “I think that people in Auburn really respect my privacy and know that I wanna be normal.”

That said, the three-time Olympic medalist is “of course” always open to meeting her supporters.

“I’m like, yeah, we can take a picture, go ahead,” Lee said. “I love it. I love when people come up to me, I feel like it just makes such like an impact on others.”

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