Suni Lee’s Year Through the Eyes of Her Support System – Twin Cities
AUBURN, Ala. – After the NCAA Gymnastics Regional Finals came a familiar scene for the older sister. She could tell it had become a routine at that time, this dance that Suni Lee does with herself. Go pose for all the photos? Or glide out of the arena, unscathed by wasted time and mental exhaustion, but leaving all those loving fans feeling unrewarded?
“His security guard,” Shyenne says—this preface alone is enough to reveal the extent of Suni’s unusual college existence—”would be like, ‘Oh no, Suni. Don’t. You’re going to be held for one hour.” But Shyenne also saw that happen at Auburn’s gymnastics meet in Huntsville. She knew the outcome.
Suni appeased the crowd.
“I think she feels some kind of guilt saying no,” Shyenne says. “I think she feels for them. She just wants people to feel good.
Lee’s freshman year of college was characterized by this tension between her sense of influence as a role model—a sense that goes well beyond her 19 years—and the desire to be only 19. It was always going to be tough after her Olympic title last July, meaning instant celebrity status as the first all-around gold medalist to compete in the NCAA.
The St. Paul gymnast’s remarkable but harrowing season ended in April at the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Throughout Suni Lee’s year, her support system has found various ways to help her find joy through the anxiety and impostor syndrome of competing with unprecedented expectations.
“I hate to use the word normal,” said Alison Lim, one of Lee’s coaches at St. Paul. “Anyway, it doesn’t seem super appropriate. But keep a normal life. We are always stressed about exams. We always turn in homework at the 11th hour.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Visits to Los Angeles last fall were supposed to be for gymnastics training. Instead, Jess Graba quickly found he was most useful as an adult coach.
Lee’s schedule on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” was so packed that she barely had time to practice her sport. It took 45 minutes to and from his two-hour rehearsal sessions.
It was the least she had ever trained in 20 weeks.
“Gymnastics is a kind of sanctuary,” a space to “just play,” Graba said. “She didn’t have the opportunity to do that. So she struggled a bit with her sanity because of all the expectations, but no release.
He is Lee’s Olympic coach and the brother of Auburn coach Jeff Graba. Lee started training with Jess when she was 6, so his new makeshift dad title worked out well. 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 flew into Los Angeles to visit, Lee was busy rehearsing. He 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. “She ran that dryer for probably hours,” he said, “and nothing was drying.” Lee needed a lesson on lint traps.
Los Angeles was an intimidating setting to experience independence for the first time. Jess had fun with it. Their coffee and lunch outings included pep talks about time management. He 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 at Auburn often involve driving. When she parks in her building, she often uses the street spaces rather than the parking lot. It’s taboo on weekdays. “You might want to watch your signs,” said Alison Lim, one of Lee’s trainers at St. Paul, and wife of Jess Graba, after several tow-car trials.
She is happy that Lee has those teachable moments. They remind us that there is nothing wrong with being wrong, in life as in gymnastics. The sudden pressure of international fame can be all-consuming. “It’s uncharted territory right now,” Jess said. “Everyone expects her to be perfect all the time, and if she makes a mistake, they assume something is wrong. Instead of: It’s gymnastics. These things happen.
MOMENTS FOR HERSELF
Every morning, Lim sends a quote to Lee. It’s a ritual she discusses shyly. “I could completely miss the mark,” she says. “I hope that helps. If not, fine. But the joy, for Lim, is in finding a timely aphorism and thought that goes into each discovery. Some days, Lim is on a love crusade. But she knows Lee well enough to know when she might need reassurance instead.
“You get what you focus on,” Lim often writes. “So focus on what you want.” Eliminating 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, it keeps 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.
Lee 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 to sharpen her focus and ambition. She wanted to be an Olympian. The day before a meeting, she wrote specific objectives. On the day of the meeting, she discussed it with Jess.
She made a vital change at Auburn: Now she writes right before a meet starts.
“Just to help calm down and get the nervousness or anxiety down on paper,” Jess says. Home or away, the applause is always louder for Lee. She can feel the eyes on her.
“She loves crowds and she loves all that love,” Jess says. “But sometimes you just have to have a moment for yourself. In the world for her right now, she just won’t have many moments for herself.
It can tell when logging is working. His personality shows more. From an early age, she was “not the easiest kid to train, and that’s on purpose.” Jess recalls a time when she struggled to perform her full Yurchenko double jump in practice. He told her that if she couldn’t always hit, he should simplify it for the next meeting. Lee stomped to the other end of the gym, appalled, and told Lim, “I think Jess is serious. I think he could pull this.
She was grumpy. She made her next three landings. Years later, that jump helped her win gold in Tokyo.
The Grabas embrace this negotiation with her, when she’s most cheeky. Jess has always encouraged her to keep her childhood journals to remember that simple excitement, the moments that make the competition turn back into a space ‘for just playing’.
Asked what Suni Lee brought to Auburn, Jeff Graba replied to the typical idea of ”seriousness and determination”. “Lightness,” he said, “and an air of fun.” She and her teammates give each other shit. “There are definitely some side jokes among the girls about Suni getting towed,” Lim said.
Lee laughs at his mistake. These things happen.