Olympic diver Suni Lee took to social media after the opening ceremonies, claiming she felt like an impostor and despite her performance on the podium being just as good as Tom Daley’s. After some time of feeling overwhelmed with fear about what people thought of her work ethic, she found a new community and motivation for diving by attending Auburn University where coaches helped guide her back into competitive mode.
Impostor syndrome is a term that was coined by clinical psychologist, Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978. It refers to the experience of not feeling like you belong and are therefore constantly questioned about your competence.
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Sunisa Lee curls up in a chair after practice last month, her knees pressed against her chest. The gymnastics star is dressed in a pink sweatshirt with the words “happy project” emblazoned across the front, a reference to the same-named clothing brand, whose purpose is to “show the world that it’s acceptable to not be okay,” according to its website.
She’s talking about life after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, including her feelings of “impostor syndrome,” how she arrived to Auburn uninspired by gymnastics last autumn, and the great expectation to perform every week, which has led to anxiety episodes.
“There’s simply been so much skepticism,” she recalls, “like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have won the Olympics, blah, blah, blah.”
Lee had only turned 18 when she left Minnesota last summer, and she wasn’t expected to challenge Simone Biles for the title of Olympic superstar. Lee might perhaps win a silver medal in the all-around or even a gold medal on the bars. When Biles surprised the sport by withdrawing from numerous tournaments due to mental health concerns, Lee was thrust into the limelight.
She not only rose to the situation, but she also took home gold in the all-around. Suni Lee became an overnight star in an instant.
In only a few months, her presence on ABC’s primetime program “Dancing with the Stars” elevated her reputation into popular culture, transforming her into a full-fledged superstar. If she imagined a typical collegiate experience as she embarked on her next adventure as a student-athlete at Auburn, she was wrong.
“You’d think I’d be accustomed to it by now,” she admits, “but I haven’t.”
She went to a basketball game a few months back and built up the courage to say hello to NBA Hall of Fame forward-turned-television commentator Charles Barkley, possibly the university’s most renowned graduate. Barkley cut her off and bellowed, “Girl, I know who you are!” as Lee tried to identify herself.
Lee was speechless. “That’s Auburn’s GOAT,” she declares. Barkley asked her on his podcast, where he grilled her on how she pulled off the Nabieva technique, a difficult release on the uneven bars named after Russian world champion Tatiana Nabieva, for the first time in NCAA history.
“I can’t image being that renowned on a college campus,” Barkley told co-host Ernie Johnson after the interview.
“Weren’t you?” Johnson inquired, surprised.
“Not like that,” Barkley said emphatically.
Lee is attempting to achieve something that has never been attempted before. She is the first Olympic gymnast to participate in college, with a gold medal in the all-around. It has resulted in her attracting large crowds everywhere she goes, as well as an endless stream of demands for photographs and signatures, making her life extremely hard for a college freshman.
“There are so many eyes on me,” she adds.
Her teammates are encouraging, and her coaches are keeping a tight watch on Lee, doing all they can to keep unwelcome attention away from her. But it’ll be a difficult task, given that Thursday’s NCAA Regional in Auburn (2 p.m. ET; ESPN App) is expected to be another sellout. Even if the team doesn’t advance to next month’s NCAA Championships, she could have the opportunity to compete as an individual by achieving the top all-around or event score(s) by a gymnast on an eliminated team. If she wins an individual NCAA championship, she would become just the second gymnast in history to do it while also winning an Olympic gold.
Despite the craziness of celebrity, she has found much-needed support — a sort she hasn’t experienced before in a sport where she has spent so much of her time alone.
“I needed to be a part of a team to rediscover my enthusiasm for the sport and keep improving,” Lee adds. “I longed to return to some kind of normalcy.”