All-around gymnastics champion Sunisa Lee got the warmest welcome possible as she kicked off her college career at Auburn University with a standing ovation from a stadium full of her fellow students.
The 18-year-old, who arrived at her new college last week, almost two weeks to the day since she claimed gold in the all-around competition in Tokyo, where she also helped Team USA to win a silver medal, while also earning a bronze medal on the uneven bars.
Suni, who is from Minnesota, officially began her time as an Auburn Tiger on Sunday evening when the college hosted its Convocation Ceremony – an annual event that hails the start of the fall semester.
But while the ceremony is traditionally held in order to welcome its incoming freshmen, this year’s event also served as an impromptu celebration of Suni’s Olympic achievements, with hundreds of students giving the gymnast a standing ovations, while chanting ‘USA, USA’ as she waved to the crowds.
From all-around glory to college courses! Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee kicked off her college career at Auburn University this weekend just two weeks after winning gold in Tokyo
Surprise! The 18-year-old was given a standing ovation by her fellow students during the college’s annual Convocation Ceremony on Sunday evening
Celebration: Suni shared footage from inside the college’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, where students began chanting ‘USA, USA’ as she waved to them on the big screen
Video of the milestone moment shows Suni standing up in the stadium seats, putting her hand over her mouth in surprise as the crowds began cheering for her.
Waving a tasseled pom pom in Auburn orange, the teenager looked overwhelmed with emotion as she looked around her in awe at the sweet gesture.
Having already made history as the first Hmong-American gymnast to represent the US at an Olympics, Suni will now once again break barriers as the first Olympic women’s all-around gymnastics champion to compete in the NCAA when she steps out onto the mat for the first time as an Auburn Tiger.
The teenager, whose parents are both Laotian refugees, committed to Auburn back in November, months before she was named as a member of the US gymnastics team for the Tokyo Games, and she made clear that her plans to attend college had not changed in light of her gold medal win at the Olympics.
‘That’s my way of celebrating: going to college,’ she said after claiming victory in the all-around competition – which was blown wide open by her teammate Simone Biles’ shock decision to withdraw amid battles with her mental health.
Unlike previous all-around champions Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Nastia Liukin, Suni has the benefit of beginning her college career just months after the NCAA announced a change to its rules which will allow any athletes to earn money from professional commitments, while representing their schools in their chosen sports.
Touching: Sharing a tweet about the moment, Suni described Auburn as ‘the best school’
Champion: The gymnast will become the first-ever Olympic women’s all-around winner to compete for the NCAA when the gymnastics season begins in January
Handy! Former all-around champions like Simone Biles have opted out of college, because previous NCAA rules banned them from earning money while competing for a school
Prior to the rule change, which was announced in June, athletes competing at college level in all three divisions of the NCAA were banned from earning money by selling their name, image, and likeness (NIL).
This prompted many successful athletes, including Biles, Douglas, and Liukin, to opt out of a college career in favor of becoming professionals, so that they could capitalize on the lucrative opportunities being offered to them in the wake of their Olympic medal wins.
For Biles, that meant multiple endorsement and sponsorship deals with big-name brands like Nike, SK-II, Visa, Oreo, and United Airlines – all of which are estimated to earn her a staggering $5 million a year, according to Forbes.
Prior to Biles’ Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games – where she won four gold medals and a bronze – she had committed to attend UCLA, however she made the decision to pursue a professional career instead, thereby forfeiting her NCAA eligibility.
However Suni has not had to make this same choice and will be able to pursue any number of huge money-making opportunities while still competing for Auburn in the NCAA competition, which begins in January.
In light of her gold medal success, the teenager could well be in line to rake in similar earnings to Biles in the coming months and years.
Money maker: According to Forbes, Biles earns an estimated $5 million a year from her professional deals – meaning that Suni could be in line to rake in the same
Decision: Suni committed to attend Auburn back in November – months before she earned a spot on the US Olympic team
Emotional: The teen, who is the daughter of two Laotian refugees (pictured), became the first-ever Hmong-American gymnast to compete for the US at the Olympics
Speaking about her history-making arrival at Auburn, Suni admitted that she is in a ‘win-win situation’, telling the college website: ‘I have to take advantage of this opportunity.
‘Nobody has done it before. I want to help be the face of that and help other people in the future know that they can do college and still make money. I feel like it’s a win-win situation.’
According to the Auburn Tigers site, Suni has a management team in place to help her balance her endorsement deals and personal appearances with her commitments as a college athlete – although she noted that her priority right now is resting and mentally preparing for the start of the NCAA season.
‘Right now, rest is the main focus because at the Olympics I was a little bit beat up,’ she shared. ‘I just want to focus on myself and getting ready for the season. I have a really good team behind me. I’m excited for everything that’s going to be coming in the future.’
Unlike many other college freshmen arriving on campus for the first time, Suni already boasts celebrity status, and she admitted that the attention she has received from her follow students has been strange for her to adjust to – although she believes that it will soon die down.
‘A lot of people here know me,’ she said. ‘I just got here so of course people are going to be excited. Once it dies down, I feel like it will be a little better and I’ll be able to do stuff and be able to go somewhere without being called out. I’m really happy to be here.’