Suni Lee Set to Be a Trailblazer in NCAA at Auburn

By Chris Korotky

For the first time in history, an Olympic All-Around Champion will be a part of NCAA gymnastics. Just weeks after earning gold in Tokyo, superstar Suni Lee will be on the plains of Auburn University, preparing for her freshman year of college and her first year competing with the Tigers.

“I’m looking forward to that so much,” Lee said after winning gold. “I’m so excited! I don’t want to miss that college experience.”

As she opens the next chapter of her gymnastics journey, Lee will be re-writing the script and blazing new trails, making history yet again.

Trailblazing: Forging a New Path

Lee’s history-making performance in Tokyo marked the fifth Olympic cycle in a row that an American gymnast has earned the All-Around crown. But unlike predecessors Carly Patterson (2004), Nastia Liukin (2008), Gabby Douglas (2012) and Simone Biles (2016), Lee won’t have to make a one-or-the-other decision regarding NCAA gymnastics versus ‘Going Pro.’

In June of this year, the NCAA Board of Governors adopted a policy that, on an interim basis, suspends previous policies that prohibited athletes from financially benefiting from Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) opportunities. 

“This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of [NIL] opportunities,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement at the time. “With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level.”

In a nutshell, an athlete can now accept compensation for sponsorships, endorsements and other promotional activity related to name, image and likeness. They don’t have to choose between an NCAA Scholarship and going on tour. They don’t have to defer educational ventures to make the most of an opportune window of time following the Olympics. They don’t have to miss the camaraderie that comes with an NCAA team experience to earn a living. Now, it’s possible to do both at the same time.

And even if those NIL rules weren’t in place, Suni Lee gave all indications prior to the Olympics that her full intentions were to attend college and compete for Auburn. It was something she’s long looked forward to and has placed significant value on. “I am set on going to college because that just has been another one of my dreams and goals,” Lee said while in Tokyo, reiterating a sentiment she’s expressed on many occasions.

“I really like the campus just because it felt very homey when I was there,” Lee reflected. “It just felt like home. I just always wanted to go to Auburn because (club coach) Jess and (Auburn coach) Jeff were coaches at the gym. And then it was just a big goal of mine. So to actually be [going] there is so exciting.”

Trailblazing: Dual Opportunities, Elite and NCAA

While Lee has made it clear that she wants a bit of a break from Elite gymnastics and is excited to get settled into the college scene, she’s also expressed a clear interest in the possibility of future World Championships. And with Paris 2024 just three years away after the Tokyo delay, the next Games are kinda-sorta right around the corner, compared to normal cycles at least. While Lee hasn’t committed to Paris, she has expressed on several occasions since the Games that Paris is not out of the question and it’s something she’s thinking about.

“I think it’s going to be really good for me because practice hours are cut back and my body just needs time to heal itself, because I’m thinking about coming back for Worlds, or something like that,” Lee expressed in Tokyo as she looked ahead to moving to Auburn. “So, I know that I need to take this time to just focus on my body and focus on myself right now. Getting that college experience is really important to me. I hope my parents can come down and watch my college competitions because it’s just going to be such a different environment.” 

Whatever decision she makes, her coaches at Auburn are ready, willing and able to help her navigate that territory and be by her side. They also have a win-win situation in that Auburn head coach Jeff Graba is the brother of Lee’s club coach Jess Graba. And that presents a wealth of opportunities in terms of how the process of balancing Elite and NCAA could play out. 

“We’ve committed to whatever she wants to do,” Jeff Graba says, emphasizing the choice is hers and there are multiple routes they could take. “That’s always been the plan…. And we’re fully capable of doing that. [She could train with Jess in the summers] or we could do a collaborative effort to a certain extent…. [When she first arrives at Auburn], she’s going to need some rest… and get [settled] into school, but whatever she wants, we’ve got a plan!”

Graba also has previous experience with helping athletes balance NCAA and Elite. When he was at Utah, he played an instrumental role in Daria Bijak’s path to the 2008 Games. Bijak was an NCAA gymnast at Utah, and part of the team that was runner-up at the 2007 NCAA Championships. She would go on to make the team for Germany at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

While the NCAA uses a completely different scoring system and Code than Elite gymnastics, they’ll be prepared to manage both. The Graba brothers talk about ways to make both work and there is also a bonus in that Assistant Auburn coach Ashley Johnston is also a high level judge well versed in both the NCAA and Elite programs. 

“We just feel like we’re uniquely positioned to help her if that’s the route she wants to go,” Jeff Graba says. “And we’ve talked to her about having multiple bar routines so that we can change things around,…having an NCAA routine that you can hit [and being able to transition to an FIG routine].”

Trailblazer: A New Journey, New Opportunities

Although Lee is going to Auburn for the education and NCAA gymnastics opportunities and the experience training and competing with a team, the unprecedented exposure that NCAA gymnastics is already enjoying could actually benefit her on the NIL side as well. In the past, gymnasts have had a limited window of time post-Olympics to truly capitalize on the opportunities. Once a tour ends or Olympic hype in the general public subsides, sponsors may be off to scout the next emerging stars for the next Games. But NCAA gymnastics continues to grow in popularity and that has led to more television time than ever, mainstream coverage, more viral moments on social media and a long window of time for exposure and for fans to continue to follow an athlete’s journey. 

“If you’re in college, you’re going to be – 15 Friday nights, every spring – you’re going to be on ESPN or the SEC Network,” Jeff Graba says. “You’re going to be seen by a bunch of people, and it just gives you more visibility. So I think for someone like Suni, to be in the SEC, in front of sold out arenas and on ESPN on Friday nights I think it’s actually a benefit to come to college and compete.” 

Trailblazer: Choice and Support System

Whichever path Lee goes, she will be forging a path that no previous U.S. All-Around Olympic Champion has ever taken. She’ll likely draw in not only diehard fans of gymnastics, but general audiences who came to know her and her story through the Olympic Games. 

With an engaging personality, unique gymnastics routines and a journey of perseverance and determination that inspired so many, Lee was clearly one of the most intriguing figures of the Games across all sports. Her social media following grew from a couple hundred thousand to nearly 1.5 million in about a week and shows no signs of slowing down. She’ll be gracing magazine covers. She’ll be invited to red carpet and event appearances. And when the college season starts, she’s sure to be a highlight of those weekly TV broadcasts. It’s also a possibility that she could make appearances at a few of the Gold Over America Tour stops, and Jeff Graba says they’ll have a plan to accommodate that if she so chooses.

But for now, Lee is just focused on getting settled in at Auburn and taking a moment to catch her breath after the Olympics. [“I’m looking forward to] kind of just being normal, I guess not even normal, but a little more normal than I am right now, because I’ll get to be a college athlete doing school and stuff like that, going to classes,” Lee says. “So it’ll just be fun, and staying in the dorms and stuff, getting away from gymnastics and just having a little bit more free time than I normally would. Which is something I’m super excited about because I’ve spent so much time in the gym, that it’s going to be nice to have this little break.”

No matter what route she goes, her family is behind her, her coaches are behind her, she’ll have a support system at the University level, and teammates who are eager to welcome her as a sister (more on the Auburn team, their welcome for Suni and the outlook for the season in an upcoming story). 

“It’s a family atmosphere,” Jeff Graba says of both the gymnastics program and the University itself. “There’s just no doubt on campus it’s a family atmosphere. What she’ll find is [people on campus will respect her and are] going to give her space because she’s one of them. They’re going to protect her because she’s one of them. That’s the Auburn family. But they’re going to be really excited, too!”

As we all are!

Coming Soon: More on Suni’s Auburn family, her arrival on campus and what’s ahead for her first year.

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics; Auburn University

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