all scores

Suni Lee starts comeback tour toward USA’s Paris Olympics team

Suni Lee trains on Friday for the Core Hydration Classic this weekend. (Jon Durr/USA TODAY Sports)

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — Sunisa Lee walked out to the floor for podium training for the Core Hydration Classic on Friday carrying a giant backpack. Before she could take too many steps towards the competition areas, she was greeted by Jordan Chiles, her 2021 Olympic teammate, with a giant hug. Chiles’ infectious enthusiasm was apparent as she ran up to Lee, who is taking baby steps back to the sport where she won Olympic all-around gold in Tokyo.

“[It felt] so good. Jordan is one of the closest people to me. So to see her back out here and to just be back out and competing with her is so fun,” Lee said during training for the U.S. Classic, where many Team USA hopefuls are competing a year before the 2024 Olympics. That group includes Simone Biles, who is returning to the mat for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, where she sat out of multiple events while dealing with the “twisties.”

The last time casual Olympic fans saw Lee, she was celebrating a breakout performance in 2021. She won gold in the all-around, helped the U.S team win silver and took bronze on the uneven bars. Like Biles and Nastia Liukin, Lee competed on “Dancing with the Stars,” where she finished fifth.

From there, Lee headed to Auburn to compete for the Tigers, as part of the first crop of Olympic athletes who were able to take advantage of NIL rules that allowed her to earn money after the Olympics and still compete in college.

Lee excelled in her first season at Auburn, drawing record crowds to their meets in 2022. She won an NCAA title on balance beam and took second in the all-around. NCAA gymnastics tends to focus more on the team outcomes. And between conference events and dual meets, collegiate gymnasts just compete more, which

“[NCAAs] definitely helped my consistency and a lot of like the mental side, because I feel like today I was coming in and I was really happy,” Lee said. “But when I got back up on the podium, and I was like worked up at first and then I was pretty calm, like recalling back to college, every single day, doing the same elements. And I’ve done this so many times.”

But throughout the 2023 season, Lee missed competitions due to a kidney condition. She announced that the ‘23 season would be her final one in college due to health issues, but she wasn’t moving on from her goal of getting back to the Olympics.

This weekend in Chicago, Lee is working to get back to elite form, even as she deals with a kidney condition that can hamper her training.

“My main goal was to just come here and compete,” Lee said. “I’m not worrying about winning or placing or anything. I just wanted to get back out here. I’m not doing full difficulty at all. I’m not competing floor [exercise].”

During podium training on Friday, Lee looked steady as she trained her balance beam, vault and uneven bars routines. The routines were on the easier side of what she can accomplish, but going viral for her latest skill isn’t the point. Showing the gymnastics world that she is progressing is.

As Lee works with doctors to control her kidney condition, she has to deal with a scaled-back training schedule. Lee told the Olympic Channel that she sometimes wakes up with fingers so swollen that she can’t put on the grips she needs to wear for the uneven bars.

“I am still kind of in and out of the gym. I don’t train as much as I used to. And I definitely don’t take as much time as I like, but whenever I’m having a really good day, I try and take advantage of that and do as much as I can,” Lee said. “Other days, I just work more basics, turns or dance elements because those are important, too.”

When her kidney condition started affecting her in January, Lee was on the exact path she wanted to be on to make it to Paris for the Olympics. Getting healthy enough to try out some of those new skills is part of why she is still pushing for Paris.

“I feel like there’s just a lot more in me. Before all of the diagnoses and all of that stuff, I was doing really good. I feel like I was coming up with new combinations, new skills, like it would have been really cool,” she said. “But that’s definitely what inspired me because I already know that I can do it. So if I just get myself back to that pace, I’ll be right on to the Olympics hopefully.”

Competing at the Classic is the first step that Lee, Chiles, Biles and all of the 2024 Olympic hopefuls will take. This event will qualify gymnasts to the U.S. Championships in San Jose in late August. From there, the top gymnasts will head to a selection camp where the world championship team will be chosen for the event in Belgium in early October.

Simone Biles returns to competition this weekend for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics. (Jon Durr/USA TODAY Sports)

For Lee, competing at the Classic is not just a step toward the Olympics, but that step she needs to take to show herself she can compete again, even if she’s not earning the highest scores.

“I’m not gonna be the perfectionist that I was before. It’s just gonna be really hard because, like, a lot of people have that pressure. But, and I think this time, it’s more like I’m coming back, but I also have the [Olympic] title. That kind of gets me a little bit worked up, but ever since I’ve gotten here, I’m just calming myself down. And I’m like, ‘Don’t put any pressure on yourself because we know that you’re not ready.’

“And like, I know what I’m capable of doing right now and it’s not gonna be like what I’m going to do. So I’m just giving myself time.”

Maggie Hendricks is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also covers women’s sports for Bally Sports. Follow her on Twitter @maggiehendricks.