American gymnast Suni Lee emerged as a star on the world stage when she won gold in the all-around at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, but in an interview with ESPN on Monday she revealed that she’s experienced what she described as « impostor syndrome » and anxiety that nearly caused her to skip competitions.
Lee, 19, is competing as a freshman at Auburn this season and has scored perfect 10s on two routines.
But she said she’s battled a lack of confidence since returning from Tokyo.
« I feel like after the Olympics, there’s just been so much doubt in like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have won Olympics, blah, blah, blah,’ and it really hits my soul, » she said.
Lee went into last year’s Olympics hoping to win the silver medal since her teammate, Simone Biles, was the favorite to take home the gold. But Biles, a four-time gold medalist, pulled out of the all-around event, citing her mental health.
Lee said she wants to prove that she earned her gold medal « because I think I just put in my head that I didn’t deserve to win. »
« Like imposter syndrome, » she said. « That’s exactly what I have. And it’s very hard. It was very hard for me to motivate myself the first couple of weeks here because it was like I didn’t want to do gymnastics, I hated it. »
Auburn coach Jeff Graba put things into perspective, Lee said, helping her « flip the switch » and understand, « This is what I need to be doing. »
But the spotlight has been white-hot for Lee this season. Graba said they’ve experienced sellout and record-setting crowds everywhere they’ve gone. He acknowledged the « intense pressure » and « tremendous amount of scrutiny » facing Lee each week.
Living up to a gold medal standard has been taxing to the point that Lee said she considered pulling herself out of meets.
« I would have anxiety attacks at the meets, » she said. « Like the first couple of the meets of this season, I was a wreck because it was like constant screaming my name and like, ‘Suni, can you take a picture?’ or ‘Can you sign an autograph?’ while I’m trying to concentrate. »
Lee said she understands and appreciates that the attention comes from a positive place. But it doesn’t make it any less difficult to handle.
Lee recalled warming up for a meet earlier in the season when she began shaking and breathing heavily. At one point she said she told Graba, « I can’t do this. »
« When everybody expects you to be good for Auburn, it’s really hard for me just mentally, because I already put so much pressure on myself that when I have that extra pressure stress added on to it, I just kind of break, » she said .
Lee said that writing in a journal has helped put her feelings into perspective and relieve some of the anxiety.
She recently shared a page from her journal on social media (https://twitter.com/sunisalee_/status/1497425375227437061), which included notes on her exercise and phrases like « Have fun » and « You are good enough. »
« I think it’s important because a lot of the times people forget that we’re human, » she said. « I think people just look at me as a famous person, they don’t actually look at me as a person and to kind of see that we can make mistakes, too. »