The N.C.A.A. women’s gymnastics championship is traditionally a gathering of outstanding gymnasts who compete a bit below world class international events.
But swinging on the bars and balancing on the beam this week in Fort Worth is the Olympics all-around gold medalist, Sunisa Lee, competing for Auburn. And while she has won one event, so strong is the competition this year that she finished only second in the all-around.
College gymnastics was not generally an option in the past for elite gymnasts with Olympic gold medals. Opportunities to be on Wheaties boxes and TV ads meant that teenage all-around gold medalists like Mary Lou Retton, Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas lost their eligibility for college competition.
But because of new rules allowing college athletes to benefit financially from their names, images and likenesses, Lee and others can compete in N.C.A.A. events while still earning income in the wake of their Olympic triumphs.
While a few Olympians like Jamie Dantzscher and Bridget Sloan have gone on to N.C.A.A. championships after their international careers, Lee is the first women’s all-around Olympic gold medalist to compete collegiately.
The gymnast who beat Lee in the all-around at the N.C.A.A.s on Thursday was Trinity Thomas of Florida. Thomas was an Olympics contender herself but dropped out of the running last spring with an ankle injury.
Her triumph at the N.C.A.A.s was capped by a perfect 10 in winning the floor exercise.
Thomas also won the uneven bars, while Lee won the balance beam and Jaedyn Rucker of Utah won the vault.
Three other 2021 Team USA members are competing in Fort Worth: Grace McCallum for Utah, Jordan Chiles for U.C.L.A. and Jade Carey, who finished fourth overall for Oregon State.
Lee credited a pep talk from Chiles for calming her and helping her to her second place finish.
Lee had planned to go to Auburn before the Games, and her unexpected gold medal after Simone Biles dropped out of the all-around competition with a mental health issue did not change her plans. “Nobody intended for me to win the all-around gold; I didn’t intend for that to happen,” Lee told The Montgomery Advertiser. “So it was kind of like I already had my mind set on going to Auburn.”
Lee is coached at Auburn by Jeff Graba, the twin brother of her personal coach, Jess Graba.
“If she had this year in 2020 when she was 17 and there was no N.I.L. and that type of stuff, I think it’s a completely different ballgame,” Jeff Graba told The Advertiser, referring to the new name, image and likeness rules. “I don’t know if she actually can go to college with all the endorsement deals that she would have had at her feet.”
Competition continues Saturday with the team final, which will include Florida with Thomas, Auburn with Lee, Utah, and Oklahoma. For Auburn, that assures a highest-ever finish in the meet, thanks in no small part to the Olympic gold medalist on its roster.