Olympic champion Suni Lee's rough Winter Cup day is reminder of what makes her a great

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In gymnastics, as in life, things aren’t perfect.

There are going to be falls. There are going to be struggles. There are going to be days that don’t turn out as you’d hope. It’s how it is and no one, even the most successful and hard-working, is immune.

But you still learn from those days, and they make you better.

That’s what Suni Lee was reminding herself of Saturday afternoon after her disappointing performance at Winter Cup. The reigning Olympic champion had fallen twice on uneven bars, including on the skill she hopes to have named for her, then had a fall on balance beam, too.

“It obviously wasn’t what I wanted. But in all honesty, I think it’s good it happened here rather than somewhere else because you can’t get anywhere without failing,” Lee said. “I’m going to be mad about it for a really long time, but it’s OK.

“Like Jess was saying, you would way rather want to do it here rather than at the Olympics,” she added, referring to longtime coach Jess Graba. “That’s something to remind myself of. Also, I haven’t been training that long.”

Suni Lee performs on the uneven bars at the USA Gymnastics Winter Cup competition.
Suni Lee performs on the uneven bars at the USA Gymnastics Winter Cup competition.

This was Lee’s first meet since she was forced to withdraw from the world team selection camp in September because of a kidney ailment that limited her training. And, in all honesty, the entire last year has been tough since the kidney issue first flared up.

Lee hasn’t said what the condition is but has shared that it causes swelling so severe it prevents her from even putting on grips and kept her out of the gym for significant stretches. She also experienced depression, struggling with the idea she couldn’t do the sport she loves and which has always come so naturally to her.

She says she’s in remission now and she and Graba said doctors finally have a good idea of how to manage her condition. But she’s really only been training for six weeks, and the skill she was trying to do Saturday is really, really hard.

To expect Lee to be flawless is to not understand the vagaries of sports. Of life.

“It’s just a day. This is a day,” Graba said. “I told her, `C’mon. You’re not going to make this without making mistakes.’ There’s no way to think that way. She’s doing things that nobody else has ever done. So how do you expect go out here and not make a mistake?

“There shouldn’t be any embarrassment. If I tried any of that stuff, I’d be probably in traction,” he added. “She’s just mad at herself because it was really good in practice. That’s what happens. That’s why you’ve got to practice.”

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People tend to see elite athletes, Olympic champions in particular, as somehow superhuman. As if they don’t experience the pitfalls and setbacks us mere mortals do. As if they can deliver a perfect performance any time they want.

What the public forgets, though, is it took thousands of hours to reach the top of that podium. That the foundation for an athlete’s spectacular success is built over years and years of small achievements and, yes, failures.

When all we see is the end result, of course our expectations are going to be skewed.

Lee has a title only 15 other women have won, a medal that girls all over the world dream of winning. She can do things that defy both gravity and physics.

But she is also still human.

“The way we did it the first time, we made lots of mistakes. You learn from your mistakes and keep pushing. Even in Tokyo, we made mistakes,” Graba said. “So I don’t have any expectations other than, get better tomorrow.”

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There is no question Lee can do that skill on bars. And a clean beam routine, for that matter. She did both multiple times during training at Winter Cup and looked spectacular in doing them. But they don’t give gold medals for winning practice.

If Lee makes it back to the Olympics, if she wins more medals, it will be because of her otherworldly skills and mental fortitude, yes. But it will also be because of days like this, days that motivate her to go back to the gym and work that much harder.

“This is part of the process,” Graba said. “And the process is hard.”

There’s no straight line to success for anyone, in sports or life.

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suni Lee's rough day is reminder of why she's Olympic gymnastics champ