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 has 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 has 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 the Olympics last year hoping to win the silver medal since 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 impostor 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 on Lee has been white-hot this season. Graba said they've experienced sellout and record-setting crowds everywhere they've gone. He acknowledged the "intense pressure" and "immense 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 that 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."