AUBURN — 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 security guard,” Shyenne says – that preface alone is enough to reveal the extent of Suni’s unusual college existence – “would be like, ‘Oh no, Suni. Don’t do it. You’re going to get held for an hour.’” But Shyenne saw this happen at Auburn gymnastics’ recent meet in Huntsville, too. She knew the result.
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 Ella Olympic title last July, meaning Ella instant celebrity status as the first all-around gold medalist to compete in NCAA.
Her season ends this week at the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Lee’s support system has found various ways to help her find joy through the anxiety of competing with unprecedented expectations.
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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 of him 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. I have 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. “Ella She was running that dryer for probably hours,” he said, “and ella it was n’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. I have 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 de ella, 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 orders.
She’s glad Lee is having those learning moments. They’re a reminder that it’s OK to mess up – in life and gymnastics. The sudden pressure of international fame can be consumed. “It’s uncharted territory right now,” Jess said. “Everybody expects her to be perfect all the time, and then if she makes a mistake they assume something must be wrong. Instead of: This is gymnastics. These things happen.”
moments to herself
Every morning, Lim texts Read 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. 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 of her, it’s keeping her of 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.
Read 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 likes the crowds and she likes all that love,” Jess says. “But sometimes you’ve just got to have a moment for yourself. In the world for her right now, she just won’t get many moments 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 de ella childhood journals to remember that simple enthusiasm, the moments that make competition transform back into a space “to just play around.”
Asked Monday 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 her 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.