“I’m really just another Auburn student.”
That’s what Sunisa (Suni) Lee, 19, tells me when I ask how she’s managing the transition from becoming a surprise gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics to returning to Auburn University for her sophomore year.
The world may disagree; Lee has amassed 1.7 million Instagram followers in the aftermath of her Olympic triumph, where, in addition to securing the gold medal in the all-around final, she also stepped in for teammate Simone Biles in the team final when Biles withdrew after the first rotation and helped lead the U.S. to a silver-medal finish. Lee also took bronze in the uneven bars final.
“When you’re competing at the Olympics, your team is your family,” Lee told me. “I didn’t think about it in any other way then when your family needs you, you deliver. Simone is like an older sister, someone I’ve looked up to for years. We all felt the pressure for Simone; it was important for us all to step up to win for her.”
Lee’s humility isn’t the result of media training or sponsor coaching; the three-time Olympic medalist truly is grateful for the opportunity to be a “normal” college student, to enjoy some of the rites of teenagehood she missed in high school and to pursue partnerships that allow her to give back.
To that end, Lee’s new partnership with CLIF, which includes the opportunity to work with nonprofit Voice in Sport Foundation to participate in Title IX trainings on college campuses across the United States, is the perfect next step.
Lee chose the partnership because she’s passionate about working to “close the opportunity gap in sports and support women at critical stages of their sports journey, and raise awareness to Title IX,” she told me.
“I’m super fortunate to partner with brands that prioritze the same values I do,” she added. “Having CLIF in my corner is so special—a brand I’ve admired—and eaten!—for years. I’m super thankful that I get this opportunity.”
On July 1, 2021, the NCAA officially made it legal for athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). Later that month, Lee burst onto the scene with her gold-medal finish over Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade and ROC’s Angelina Melnikova and her crucial assist of Biles.
Media outlets raced to tell her story—a St. Paul, Minnesota, native and proud member of the Hmong-American community, Lee became the first Asian champion of any nationality in an Olympic all-around final.
She also reached the Olympics after persevering through two personal tragedies—her father, John, fell off a ladder in 2019 and was paralyzed from the waist down, and in 2020 Lee’s aunt and uncle died of Covid-19.
Her inspiring story, her bubbly personality and her sheer talent made Lee an overnight superstar. On3 NIL, which tracks college athletes’ NIL deals, estimates Lee’s market value of $1.5 million. Prior to her new partnership with CLIF, she had already signed deals with Amazon
, Invisalign and Target
Lee called the NCAA’s revised stance on NIL deals “a change that was a long time coming.”
“I’m so fortunate to be able to compete at the collegiate level and pursue my business at the same time,” she said. “It’s huge for athletes who don’t have pro leagues to go on to after college.”
Lee hasn’t indicated whether she’s going to aim to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics. But she has affirmed her excitement to be immersed in college life at Auburn, where, despite the three pieces of Olympic hardware in her possession, she can “just be Suni.”
She and the Auburn Tigers have their sights set on the Final Four.
“College gymnastics is a whole different world than elite gymnastics when the team is the focus, not training by yourself,” she said. “We all kind of try and help each other because it is a team sport.”
With her work with Voice in Sport Foundation, Lee hopes to encourage more women—especially from minority populations—to pursue college athletics.
“’I’m super proud to rep the Hmong community, a community that has supported me along my whole journey,” she said. “Standing on the podium in Tokyo was validation for us, all little girls who dare to dream, and look beyond their circumstances—little girls who look like me. I see a ton of young Hmong girls in the gym and it’s honestly a great feeling, having them come up to me.”
What does Lee say to these little girls, to whom she has become an idol?
“Don’t let anyone tell you something is impossible. It’s really important to remember to be you. This is something I always tell myself in the Olympics, to not do anything more or nothing less, because your normal is good enough.”