Olympians Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey, Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles carry extra burden into NCAA championships

Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee celebrates after nailing a perfect score on the bars during the SEC Gymnastics Championships.
Imagn/USA Today Sports

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Sunisa Lee arrived in Tokyo last summer relatively unknown. Then came the Olympics, the meet of her life, a gold medal she once thought unattainable and first-name-only status in her sport for life.

Her all-around title and the splash of fame that came with it did little to mess with her plans. She moved to Auburn to start her freshman year just a couple of weeks after coming back to the U.S. with three medals in her carry-on. Relaxed rules on name, image and likeness meant she didn’t have to choose between “Dancing With the Stars” and taking online classes while competing for the Tigers.

The now 19-year-old has done everything she has set her mind to, both on the mat and off. Her personal brand is booming and Auburn is in this week’s NCAA national championships for the first time since 2016, exactly as she hoped when she left Japan last summer.

MORE 2022 NCAA GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Schedule, how NCAA gymnastics works

Still, Lee and fellow Olympians Jade Carey (Oregon State), Grace McCallum (Utah) and Jordan Chiles (UCLA) will take the floor on Thursday with something the rest of the field does not: the weight of outsized expectations, the kind that comes with the territory after you’ve stood on an Olympic podium with the flag of your country being raised to the rafters.

“I think all the Olympians have that burden,” Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. “I think Suni has it maybe more than most just because the all-around gold medalist always has a little bit of an extra burden on them.”

Yet Graba is quick to point out that Olympic gymnastics and NCAA gymnastics are the same sport in spirit, but not necessarily in practice.

The skill level is different. The time commitment is different. The scoring is different. The team-first vibe is different. All of which can require an adjustment period.

Carey, who won gold on floor exercise in Tokyo, acknowledges going from 30-plus hours in the gym while training for the Olympics to the NCAA-mandated 20-hour limit with the Beavers — not to mention cramming a dozen-plus meets into three months — took some getting used to.

“We’re not training as much, so I’m not super tired,” Carey said. “But I would say, like the middle of the season. I was like, ‘Whoa, like this is a lot of competing.’”

That’s because it is. The elite calendar is geared toward making sure athletes peak a handful of times a year. The collegiate season spans a fraction of that while asking gymnasts to pull on their leotard and salute the judges far more frequently.

It’s one of the reasons collegiate gymnastics puts a premium on precision. Yes, the level of gymnastics might not be what you see at the Olympics, but if you held the Olympics every week for 13 straight weeks, they might look an awful lot like what will be showcased inside Dickie’s Arena this weekend.

Yet the distinction might get lost in translation.

Eight months ago, Lee stunned the world — perhaps herself most of all — when she became the fifth straight American woman to claim the Olympic title. This week, the reality is she’s not the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA crown.

Florida senior Trinity Thomas put together 18 routines this year the judges scored a 10.0, the most in the country. A former and maybe future elite — she said “nothing is set in stone” after this weekend — Thomas has been where the Lee and company are now, trying to figure out a way to recalibrate her skillset and her mindset.

“I kind of like the aspect of like trying to do things like as good as possible because you were going for that 10,” Thomas said. “And so that was definitely really cool for me and like something that I kind of got to switch over and be like, ‘OK, I want everything to be literally perfect,’ right?”

An option that doesn’t exist at elite. That’s hardly the case collegiately. Judges have awarded a staggering 69 perfect 10s this season, including a weekend when all four of the 2020 Olympians saw the iconic number flash across the scoreboard for them at least once.

And yeah, it was pretty dope.

“I was really excited, like I made the Olympics all over again,” Chiles said.

And a return trip to their sport’s biggest stage remains the goal for Chiles, Lee and Carey. Both Chiles and Carey are participating in a U.S. national team camp later this month. Lee’s immediate future remains a bit up in the air — Graba said he will sit down with his star after NCAAs to discuss her options — but Lee has not been shy about saying she would like to be in Paris in 2024.

Trying to compete at both the elite and college levels at the same time is incredibly demanding, meaning this trip to nationals may be their only one. Yet their appearance has provided another jolt to a level of the sport in the midst of a boom.

If someone other than an Olympian stands atop the podium on Thursday night with the all-around title in hand, Chiles sees it as proof that the talent pool at the collegiate level extends far beyond the Olympians. That’s hardly a bad thing.

“Honestly, every single girl that steps out onto the NCAA floor, any floor in general is talented, gifted and has the dedication to be in the sport,” Chiles said. “So their reward is what their reward is and they deserve every single piece of it.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Olympic gold medalist Jade Carey announces return to elite gymnastics

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Getty Images

It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Getty Images

The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.