AUBURN, ALA. – The equipment had been set up an hour earlier, before Suni Lee even got to the photo shoot. She just had to show up, drape her three Olympic medals around her neck and turn on the charm.

Lights! Camera! And … yawn!

"I am sooo tired,'' said Lee, whose jam-packed week had left her little energy to strike a pose at 9 a.m. "I just had a photo shoot on Tuesday, and that night I drove to Atlanta and had another photo shoot on Wednesday. With practice and finals and trying to find time for myself, I am so busy."

When the shutter began clicking, though, Lee lived up to the reputation she crafted at last summer's Olympics. The St. Paul gymnast stopped yawning and rose to the occasion, putting on a gold medal performance for the camera at her new home in the Auburn University gym.

It's no wonder the Olympic all-around champion is exhausted these days. Lee, 18, just finished her first semester at Auburn, months after her stunning, star-making performances at the Tokyo Games. She's working extra hard in practice to prepare for her college gymnastics debut next month, making up for training time lost during a three-month stay in Los Angeles to appear on "Dancing with the Stars."

“When she won the all-around, we were prepared for crazy. We weren't prepared for this amount of crazy.”
Auburn coach Jeff Graba

While other freshmen work in the library or dining hall, Lee is designing leotards and endorsing products, opportunities now allowed under the NCAA's new name, image and likeness rules. She's also learning how to navigate life as an international celebrity. Strangers routinely take photos and videos of her, even when she's just shopping at the local Target.

"I'll go somewhere with her, and people will be like, 'Oh, my gosh!' " said Sara Hubbard, Lee's roommate and a fellow freshman gymnast. "They'll be saying, 'Can I have a picture with you? You're so cool! I can't believe you're really here!' It can be overwhelming at times."

Lee doesn't disagree, but she isn't complaining, either. Her past is packed with events that could have sunk her ambitions: an accident that left her father paralyzed, a foot injury that still bothered her at the Olympics, the pandemic that forced the temporary closure of her gym and a one-year delay of the Tokyo Games.

She persevered through it all to win Olympic gold in the all-around, silver in the team competition and bronze on uneven bars. The first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team, Lee also stamped herself as a pioneer, a role she continues to embrace.

Lee is the first American woman to compete in college gymnastics after winning Olympic all-around gold. She intends to defend her title at the 2024 Paris Summer Games, balancing elite and NCAA competition in unprecedented fashion.

It's exhausting, to be sure. It's also exhilarating, for Lee and those who guided her through an extraordinary journey that made her the 2021 Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.

"When she won the all-around, we were prepared for crazy," Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. "We weren't prepared for this amount of crazy.

"We're sort of inventing this as we go. In all respects, Suni is really blazing a path, and it isn't just a new path. She's cutting down wild forest."

Suni the star

A year ago, Lee led a typical teenage existence, save for the 40-plus hours she spent in the gym every week. She was a senior at South St. Paul High School, living in a quiet East Side neighborhood. A family reunion qualified as a big social event.

The Olympics vaulted her into an entirely new sphere. Lee now has a management group — "Team Suni" at Boston-based Smith & Saint — handling her business interests, and the agency pairs with Auburn to field a flood of requests for interviews and public appearances. Agent Britt St. George said Lee has deals with Amazon, Facebook, Free People clothing, GK Elite leotards and the electric vehicle maker VinFast, with more to come in 2022.

Last fall, Lee attended the Met Gala in New York City, walking the red carpet in a custom-made golden gown with A-listers such as Kim Kardashian West. She got the full celebrity treatment, with a Vogue photo spread and stylists doing her hair and makeup. Even her fingernails have captured attention, in articles rhapsodizing over her square tips.

"It used to be only people in the gymnastics community who knew me," said Lee, who has 1.6 million followers on Instagram. "And now, it's like everybody knows me. It's a big change. I mean, a really big change."

While Olympic gold typically comes with a side helping of stardom — particularly in women's gymnastics — Lee's dramatic performances in Tokyo made her portion extra large. When Simone Biles withdrew from the team final after one event, Lee stepped into the breach, pushing through her shock and stress to lead the U.S. to a silver medal. With Biles also out of the all-around, Lee again shouldered the Americans' hopes in a high-pressure situation and came away with gold.

That put Lee under a spotlight that would follow her to Auburn. Just a few days after her return from Tokyo, Lee and her sister, Shyenne, packed up her belongings and drove south to the Alabama plains. She still hoped she could have a normal college experience, maybe even finding a way to blend in on a campus with 27,000 students.

A business major, Lee took four classes during the fall semester. She moved into a dormitory suite with Hubbard and began learning her way around campus. The normalcy didn't last long.

Two weeks after arriving at Auburn, Lee left for Los Angeles and "Dancing with the Stars." From September through mid-November, she rehearsed three hours per day with partner Sasha Farber, performed on live TV and did her classwork online. She got into a gym only once every one to two weeks.

Like the Olympics, Lee found it a life-altering experience.

"I really had to grow up," said Lee, who finished in fifth place. "I had to do everything on my own. And I really liked it, because it was something completely different for me.

"All I knew was gymnastics. Being on the show, I felt like I kind of found myself, and it made me love myself more. I never would have thought I could dance like that."

In L.A., where celebrities are as plentiful as palm trees, Lee didn't feel she was under constant scrutiny. Once she returned to small-town Auburn, she had to learn to live under an unblinking public eye.

“I'll go somewhere with her, and people will be like, 'Oh, my gosh!' They'll be saying, 'Can I have a picture with you? You're so cool! I can't believe you're really here!' It can be overwhelming at times.”
Sara Hubbard, Lee's roommate

Lee doesn't go to parties or campus social events. She does attend Auburn basketball and football games, often with teammates who look out for her when crowds start to gather.

"I can't imagine experiencing my freshman year on camera," said junior gymnast Morgan Leigh Oldham. "Sometimes we'll go to a game for a little bit, and then we'll go home. Or I'll tell people, 'Guys, just let her breathe.' "

While she is grateful for her fans, Lee worries about saying the wrong thing and being savaged on social media, or that people will think she is mean if she turns down a photo request. "I have to put on a professional face whenever I'm in public," she said. "It can be really hard. Sometimes, I just want to be out with my friends, and people are constantly taking pictures and videos of me."

Jess Graba, Lee's longtime club coach at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, believes Lee wasn't prepared for the level of attention her Olympic success would bring. Auburn coach Jeff Graba, his twin brother, admitted he wasn't ready for it, either.

While fame has changed Suni's life, Jess said, it hasn't changed her. He and his brother are dedicated to keeping it that way.

"My concern is that she can maintain the ability to be herself, and not feel like she's on stage all the time," Jess Graba said. "At 18 years old, she always has to be thinking about what she should and shouldn't do. She has to have a quick learning curve with a lot of the things on her plate. But she's starting to get her feet under her."

Back to the gym

There is one place in Auburn where Lee can just be herself: the McWhorter Center, home to the school's 14th-ranked gymnastics team. In the gym, tucked into a quiet corner of campus, the Olympic champion is one of 19 athletes working toward a season that starts with a Jan. 7 meet at North Carolina.

Last week, Lee was still trying to regain her form. Though Jeff Graba said "Dancing with the Stars" gave her a welcome break from gymnastics, the lack of training put her behind. She occasionally appeared unsure of herself as she worked on her bars dismount in the Tigers' gym, tumbling over and over into a pit of foam blocks.

Lee's star power created a run on tickets, with all of Auburn's home meets selling out within four days. A meet at Arkansas was moved to a larger venue to allow more people to see her.

Jeff Graba is taking the same approach in the gym as he is outside of it, trying to insulate Lee from the pressure to be perfect.

Auburn gymnastics coach Jeff Graba gave Suni Lee instruction after she finished working on an uneven bars routine in practice.
Auburn gymnastics coach Jeff Graba gave Suni Lee instruction after she finished working on an uneven bars routine in practice.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

"I tell everybody, she needs a little grace," Graba said. "She gets to fail once in a while. She won the Olympics after years of work, and she doesn't need to come right out and win again. She's starting the process of what the next few years will look like."

Jess Graba said college and elite gymnastics are "two separate worlds," requiring different routines and skills. Though Lee won't be performing her world-renowned bars routine at Auburn, she plans to return to the U.S. championships and other elite meets in the future. She hopes the world championships and 2024 Olympics will follow.

The Graba twins and their assistant coaches will work in concert to help Lee excel in both realms, with Jeff coaching her in college and Jess overseeing her elite training. Her Auburn teammates will play a role, too.

College gymnastics is very much a team sport, even though athletes compete solo. As excited as the Tigers were to welcome Lee into the fold, they are not starstruck by having an Olympic gold medalist in their midst. Nor are they expecting her to carry them.

Oldham, Lee's teammate, said the Tigers want to provide Lee with a safe, supportive environment, free of judgment or expectations.

"She's an Olympian, and she's shown she can manage pressure," Oldham said. "But she's still a human, and she's still a freshman.

"I think Suni was very nervous at first that she wouldn't be accepted, or that people would be too afraid to talk to her. But she's made some great connections. And we're learning what Suni needs from us, so we can help her be her best for this team."

Lee is trying not to be too hard on herself as she works to get her gymnastics skills back. Jeff Graba has urged her to look at this period of her life as an entirely new book, not as a continuation of the story she wrote in St. Paul and Tokyo. He has avoided setting any goals for her freshman season.

"We're trying to slow her down,'' he said. "She's so competitive, so driven. But she's also young, and she just has to work through some stuff."

Lee misses many things about Minnesota: her large, loving family, her mom's stir-fries, the Mall of America, even the snow. She talks to her parents, sister and club coaches frequently, helping ease the transition to a fast-moving chapter in her life.

She wears a reminder of the Tokyo Games on her left forearm, a black tattoo of the Olympic rings. Her medals also are close by, kept in a safe location in Auburn.

It's the memories, though, that shine like gold in Lee's exhausting, exhilarating and extraordinary year.

"After I won [the all-around], Jess whispered in my ear, 'I always knew you could do it,' " Lee said. "I feel like people doubted me, but I showed myself I could step up to the plate. I'll never forget that.

"I still watch the videos on YouTube, and I start tearing up. It's still crazy to think I actually won the Olympics."