Olympic champion Suni Lee finds she's stronger than she knew after facing health issue

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The mental strength it took for Suni Lee to become Olympic champion was nothing compared to what she needed to get through this last year.

She’s used to bending her body to her will — literally — and now it was betraying her. A kidney ailment, and the medication necessary to treat it, often left her so swollen she couldn’t even put on her grips to train on her beloved uneven bars. The consistent training required of an elite-level gymnast was impossible because she didn’t know how she’d feel from one day to the next.

The detailed preparations she and longtime coach Jess Graba had for the Paris Games were derailed. So much so there were days Lee worried she wouldn’t be “good enough” to make another Olympic team.

“I wasn’t in the greatest mindset,” Lee, who won the all-around title at the Tokyo Games, said Friday.

Graba put it more succinctly: “She was just so depressed with how things have gone.”

Suni Lee warms up on the balance beam for the Winter Cup competition on Feb. 23, 2024.
Suni Lee warms up on the balance beam for the Winter Cup competition on Feb. 23, 2024.

But the 20-year-old is hopeful the nightmare of the last year is behind her. Lee has never said what the kidney issue is, but said Friday it’s now in remission. She and Graba have finally figured out what works for her training-wise and, just as importantly, how to adapt when it doesn’t.

Though she’s only been seriously training for about six weeks, she’s competing at Winter Cup on Saturday. Even debuting a new skill on bars that’s never been done before.

“It’s a really big relief,” Lee said. “I was looking back at my 'one year agos' (photos) and I think we were in Kentucky. That’s when I had the first flare-up. I’m like, wow. It’s crazy what happened in a year. Because here I am, a year later, competing my new skill. It’s so exciting.”

Lee is only doing bars and balance beam at Winter Cup, but she’s training in all four events, and Graba said the plan is for her to do the all-around again.

“Everything’s a possibility,” Graba said. “It depends on what Suni wants to do.”

For months, Lee just wanted to be herself.

The kidney issue began last spring, and she wound up having to cut her final NCAA season at Auburn short because she was having difficulty training. She went home to Minneapolis, and Graba has praised the care she’s gotten from specialists at the Mayo Clinic.

But every day was different as doctors worked to find both the right medication and right dose of it. Some days, Lee felt well enough to train like usual. Others, she could only do a limited workout. And there were still others when she couldn’t even get out of bed.

She competed at both the U.S. Classic and national championships last year, doing vault and beam and finishing in the top three on beam at both events. But she withdrew from the September selection camp for the world championships, unable to train consistently enough.

The months that followed were tough — for both Lee and Graba.

Suni Lee celebrates winning the women's gymnastics all-around gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Suni Lee celebrates winning the women's gymnastics all-around gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Lee was floundering, struggling to find her purpose when she couldn’t do the sport she loved, and Graba didn’t know how to help her.

“The last year, I’d rather forget it,” said Graba, who has coached Lee since she was a child.

“The hardest part was getting her out of her depression and into the gym,” Graba added. “At first, I didn’t really want her to do gymnastics, I just wanted her to come in and hang out. A bunch of the little kids, she’s like their big sister. I just wanted her to come in, hang out and do stuff.”

As doctors finally got Lee’s medication figured out, gymnastics became her motivation. Specifically, that new skill on uneven bars.

Lee had been playing with it for a couple of years, but began working on it in earnest the last couple of months. She hopes to be selected for the World Cup in Baku next month so she can get the skill — a release move where she launches herself off the top bar and does a full twisting forward somersault in a laid-out position before catching the bar again — named for her.

“It’s awesome. It’s impressive. I love seeing gymnasts continue to push those boundaries and these skills,” said Chellsie Memmel, the technical lead for the U.S. women’s team.

“If you can go out and be that first person to perform it successfully and have your name on it, it’s a really cool feeling,” added Memmel, who has a skill on floor named after her.

Because of how the last year has gone, Lee focuses on what’s right in front of her. She wants to get through Winter Cup and then, hopefully, the World Cup.

Only after that will she let herself think about the Olympics.

"I'm way better," Lee said. "I'm in happy spirits. I'm just so happy to be here."

With a new skill. And a newfound strength.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suni Lee is back with a new gymnastics skill and newfound strength