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Gold medalist Suni Lee gets real on life in college and being in the spotlight

St. Paul native Suni Lee is busy making history as an Auburn Tiger gymnast while navigating a full schedule.

AUBURN, Ala. — On a frigid February afternoon in the Twin Cities, the high temperatures barely break out of the single digits. But in Auburn, Alabama, it's in the 60s. Basking in that warmth is St. Paul native and Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee.

She's attending Auburn University, and our interview is pushed back about half an hour because the 18-year-old needs to get out of class and squeeze in another engagement before she sits down to talk.

It's kind of how her life has been lately. A range of emotions from hot to cold and being pulled in multiple directions while trying to find some semblance of balance. 

"I know it's been crazy," Suni said. "I've been so busy lately, but it's honestly been so much fun."

It could be why she finds comfort in the gym. It's a comfort that allows her to rise to historic levels.

Suni is the SEC Gymnast of the Week. According to SEC Sports, she helped her team earn a second win at Georgia, the Tigers' second win at Athens in program history. Suni also swept the event titles and then won the all-around. She also won her first vault crown, competing with a vault that has never been seen in the NCAA.

"I knew that I just wanted to try something new," Suni said. She had tried it in a smaller meet, but knew she'd push herself more in college. 

"Here it's like you really get to celebrate and enjoy your routines and it's really such a family thing, a team thing, and it feels just amazing when you can kind of have everybody else there to celebrate it with you," Suni said.

She revels in the celebration with her team. But life outside the gym feels like a whirlwind. From classes, endorsements, interviews, haters, to also trying to enjoy her personal life, she is candid and thoughtful about the imbalance. 

"I mean, especially school has been probably the hardest thing for me and then trying to come in here and then get all my work done and then having time to myself," Suni said as she talks to us inside Auburn's gym.

Time to herself is important. Suni said when she is overwhelmed and needs a break, you can find her catching some sleep.

"I'm a stress sleeper so when I stress, like, I take naps all the time," she said. "But if I'm not taking a nap, I'm just hanging out with my friends, getting food, going shopping."

Suni knows it helps to talk to others you trust about what you're going through. She's opening up more about taking care of her mental health on social media. Some of what she has learned comes from her Team USA teammate, Simone Biles.

During the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Biles - who was favored to win gold in many routines - surprised the world when she chose to prioritize her mental health over the competition.

"She's been somebody that I have looked up to for so long, so when you hear her talking about mental health and that it's OK, it obviously means something because she is the G.O.A.T.," Suni said.

"I can go to her when I ever need help with something," she said. "I think it's nice to kind of speak up about mental health now, because it's like, people always see the good parts of my life and that's why I kind of want to portray like not the bad stuff, but the more real stuff."

RELATED: WATCH: Suni Lee celebrates being named one of TIME's Most Influential People of 2021

She did get real with us.

"There's just been so much more eyes on me all the time, so I feel like I can't breathe a majority of the time, but I feel like I also have to do everything for everybody else," she said.

Suni's seemingly overnight rise into the world's spotlight came with overwhelming support and some criticism, from strangers and some in her own Hmong-American community. When asked about what she wants those in the Hmong-American community and "haters" in general to know about who she is, she paused for just a moment to think.

"That's a hard one," Suni said, "I definitely would just say, like, I'm not perfect."

Suni said she wasn't raised like a "traditional" Hmong girl.

Pa Der Vang, an associate professor of social work and critical Hmong Studies at Saint Catherine University in Saint Paul, said Suni is alluding to the historically patriarchal culture and gender roles in the Hmong community.

Vang said traditionally, the cultural expectations of women were to be what was considered a 'good Hmong girl.'  She said those are women who are subservient, demure, they're not too outgoing or talkative, or they don't act like they're too smart.

"They follow the patriarchy rule that the men are the leaders and your dreams can’t go beyond the Hmong life," Vang said.  She said she has some young women in her classes who live in a dichotomy.  "I have students who say 'I don't know if I choose my culture or my dreams but I'm like, wait a minute, you can have both," Vang said.  She explains that sometimes, there are people who can't separate a woman's professional life from their personal life.  While Vang said it is getting better, she and Suni point out, these ideas still exists.

"That's where it's like hard for me because I never really grew up like that," Suni said. "My parents just always let me strive for me dreams, like go to the gym, so it's hard when I have to kind of not really change the way that I act, but just feel like I have to change for other people."

Suni thinks that's where some of the pressure and stress comes from, and said it's tough to hear people say she's ungrateful for their support. She isn't. 

"It's really hard when people are like 'You're such a disgrace to our culture,'" she said. "I just want to be able to have fun and live my life but it's hard when I have the stress of that."

Sometimes, navigating all that's going on day-to-day makes her long for the familiarity of her family in Minnesota. Suni said they text a lot.

"I definitely just miss like their energy and support," Suni said. Her sister, Shyenne, will be coming down to visit this weekend. She said her parents haven't been able to make it to a meet in Auburn yet.  Though her mom Yeev Thoj ensures us they are meaning to do it.  Thoj said there are just some challenges with her husband, John Lee.  Suni understands that.

"It's just harder for my parents to travel because of my dad, but I hope that they'll be able to come down to a meet soon," she said. Her dad was paralyzed in an accident in 2019. "They're always texting me and telling me good luck and that they miss me," Suni said. "So I miss them a lot."

Whether she misses the snow is a different story.

"Oh, I do not miss the snow," she laughs. She seems to be loving the Alabama winters.

"But I also just miss like the Hmong food or like the Asian food," Suni said. "You cannot find that anywhere here so it's something that I miss, like my mom’s food or her cooking," she said. "I miss it a lot."

Thoj said Suni has a lot of favorite dishes, including boiled pork with mustard greens, pho, and papaya salad.

As for her Olympic career? Suni said hopefully another run for gold is in her future.  The 2024 Summer Olympics will be held in Paris in 2024.  

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