Sunisa Lee set to compete in first NCAA championships on Thursday

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic all-around champion will look to add more titles to resume and help lift her Auburn Tigers to new heights in Fort Worth

By Scott Bregman
Picture by Matthew Shannon/Auburn University Athletics

“Eliminate the doubt.”

Easier said than done when performing on the four-inch-wide balance beam, but those three words began Olympic all-around gold medallist Sunisa Lee’s journal entry late last month. Lee shared the entry on Twitter as she prepared to compete in the regional semi-final with her University of Auburn women’s gymnastics team.

The squad, aided by Lee, has made history at nearly every turn in the 2022 season, including a program high total – 198.575 – that ranks fifth all-time across the NCAA. Lee herself has notched a 39.825 in the all-around and five perfect 10.0 marks.

Lee has been open about the pressure she feels. The 19-year-old is the star of Auburn’s squad, the first woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal and compete in the NCAA. That means sometimes she can feel the weight of the world.

"I think it's important because a lot of the times people forget that we're human," she said, according to an interview with ESPN. "I think people just look at me as a famous person; they don't actually look at me as a person and to kind of see that we can make mistakes, too."

But Lee looked relaxed during Wednesday's official practice in Fort Worth, often laughing with her teammates between solid turns on the apparatus.

In addition to hopes of pushing the Auburn Tigers into Saturday’s four-team finals, Lee comes to Texas with a chance to take several individual honours, as well.

She ended the regular season ranked second nationally in the all-around, behind only Jade Carey of Oregon State. Carey is a fellow Olympic champion from Tokyo, having claimed the gold medal on the floor exercise. Lee is also top ranked on the uneven bars and balance beam.

Ahead of last summer’s Tokyo Games, Lee’s best chance at individual gold was thought to be in the uneven bars final. Her high-flying routine connects some of the hardest catch-and-a-release moves ever performed in the sport.

In the all-around, she was somewhat of an afterthought, a contender for silver after the presumed gold by five-time world all-around champion Simone Biles. But when Biles chose to withdraw from competition to focus on her mental health, Lee was suddenly going for gold.

She seized the opportunity and became the fifth-straight American woman and first of Asian descent to claim the crown.

But the surprise chance and subsequent victory has sparked what Lee called imposter syndrome and a desire to show her Olympic gold wasn’t a fluke.
“I think it’s something I just want to prove to myself, because I think I have a lot of doubters, and prove it to everybody else but more importantly to myself,” said Lee in a recent Associated Press interview. “I don’t want to look back and be like, I could have done so much more. I want to look back and know I gave it everything I had and if I didn’t succeed, I didn’t. But I gave it my all.”

Her post-Olympic whirlwind included a turn on the popular reality competition series ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and appearances at A-list events like the Met Gala.

Lee’s profile has helped Auburn – and others – fill its arena throughout the 2022 season with more than 45,000 fans packing into Neville Arena for a chance to see the gold medallist. When Lee and the Tigers traveled to the University of Michigan, they sold out too – a first for the school – with more than 12,000 in attendance.

“I would say the ability to fill your opponent’s arena is generational,” said long-time University of Utah head coach Greg Marsden on Twitter. Mardsen is renowned as a marketing mastermind in the sport, having created a massive fan base in Salt Lake City. “#NCAAGym has been fortunate enough to have two (so far) in the past few years, Sunisa Lee and Katelyn Ohashi.”

It's all part of the growing interest of the sport pushed by Lee's very presence. So, when competition begins Thursday, she’ll try to take a page out of her own book, her journal, and push aside all the noise.

“Decide what you want to accomplish today,” she wrote in that March 31 entry. “Do it for yourself. Prove it to yourself. Put yourself first.”

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.