Sunisa Lee arrived in Tokyo last summer relatively unknown. Then came the Olympics, the encounter of a lifetime, a gold medal she once thought was unreachable, and name status in her sport for life.
His full title and the touch of fame that came with it did little to spoil his plans. She moved to Auburn to start her freshman year just weeks after returning to the United States with three medals in her carry-on. Relaxed name, image and likeness rules meant she didn’t have to choose between ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and taking online classes while competing for the Tigers.
The 19-year-old did everything she had in mind, both on and off the mat. Her personal brand is in full swing, and Auburn is competing at the NCAA Nationals this week for the first time since 2016, just as she hoped when she left Japan last summer.
Still, Lee and fellow Olympians Jade Carey (Oregon State), Grace McCallum (Utah) and Jordan Chiles (UCLA) will take to the stage on Thursday with something the rest of the peloton doesn’t: the weight of inflated expectations, the kind that comes with the territory after standing on an Olympic podium with your country’s flag hoisted to the rafters.
“I think all Olympians have that burden,” Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. “I think Suni maybe has it more than most just because the all-around gold medalist always has a bit of an extra burden on him.” Still, Graba is quick to point out that Olympic gymnastics and NCAA gymnastics are the same sport. in spirit, but not necessarily in practice.
The skill level is different. The time commitment is different. The scoring is different. The atmosphere of the first team is different. All of this may require a period of adjustment.
Carey, who won floor exercise gold in Tokyo, admits going from over 30 hours in the gym while training for the Olympics to the NCAA-imposed 20-hour limit with the Beavers – not to mention having accumulated more than a dozen encounters in three. months – took some getting used to.
“We don’t train as much, so I’m not super tired,” Carey said. ”But I would say, like the middle of the season. I was like, ‘Whoa, like that’s a lot of competition.’ That’s because it is. The elite schedule is designed to ensure athletes peak a handful of times per year. The collegiate season covers a fraction of that while requiring gymnasts to don their leotards and salute the judges much more frequently.
This is one of the reasons why collegiate gymnastics favors precision. Yes, the level of gymnastics might not be what you see at the Olympics, but if you held the Olympics every week for 13 consecutive weeks, it might look a lot like what will be featured inside Dickie’s Arena this weekend.
Yet the distinction could get lost in translation.
Eight months ago, Lee stunned the world – perhaps especially herself – when she became the fifth consecutive American to win the Olympic title. This week, the reality is that she’s not the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA crown. Florida senior Trinity Thomas put together 18 routines this year, the judges scored a 10.0, the highest in the nation. A former and possibly future elite – she said ‘nothing is set in stone’ after this weekend – Thomas has been where Lee and company are now, trying to find a way to recalibrate their skills and mindset.
“I kinda like the aspect of trying to make it as good as possible because you were aiming for that 10,” Thomas said. “And so that was really cool for me and like something that I kind of got to change and be like, OK, I want everything to be literally perfect, don’t you? “An option that doesn’t exist at Elite. This is hardly the case collectively. The judges awarded an impressive 69 perfect 10s this season, including a weekend where all four 2020 Olympians saw the iconic number appear on the scoreboard for them at least once.
And yes, it was pretty dope.
“I was really excited, like I had done the Olympics again,” Childs said.
And a trip back to their sport’s biggest stage remains Childs, Lee and Carey’s goal. Childs and Carey are attending a U.S. national team camp later this month. Lee’s immediate future remains a little uncertain – Graba said he would sit down with his star after the NCAAs to discuss his options – but Lee was quick to say she would like to be in Paris in 2024 .
Trying to compete at the elite and collegiate levels at the same time is incredibly demanding, which means this trip to nationals may be their only one. Yet their appearance provided another jolt to a booming level of the sport.
If anyone other than an Olympian steps onto the podium Thursday night with the all-around title in hand, Childes sees it as proof that the talent pool at the college level extends far beyond Olympians. That’s not a bad thing. “Honestly, every girl that comes out on NCAA soil, any floor in general, is talented, gifted and has the dedication to be in the sport,” Childs said. “So their reward is what their reward is and they deserve every bit of it.”
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