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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.

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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.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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