Suni Lee Set To Make Elite Return: “There’s a lot more in me.”

Suni Lee Set To Make Elite Return: “There’s a lot more in me.”

Suni Lee Set To Make Elite Return: “There’s a lot more in me.” 

When Suni Lee walked into NOW Arena for podium training at the 2023 Core Hydration Classic, she did so with a new title – one she didn’t have the last time she competed on the Elite stage in the United States: Olympic All-Around Champion. 

It’s been just over two years since Lee beautifully rose to the occasion in Tokyo and grabbed the most coveted title there is in gymnastics, inspiring the world and a new generation of athletes ready to follow in her footsteps and ignite their own dreams of Olympic glory. With the title came the headlines and Lee’s face was everywhere as everyone celebrated new gymnastics royalty. A lot has happened since then. 

Shortly after the Games Lee left for LA, competing on Dancing With the Stars and making her way through the late night talk show circuit, then headed to Auburn University where she spent two seasons drawing record-breaking crowds everywhere she went and making history as the first Olympic All-Around Champion to compete in collegiate gymnastics. But the road hasn’t always been easy. 

In February, mid-way through her sophomore season as a Tiger, a kidney-related health issue forced Lee’s career at Auburn to come to an early end. Ever since, she’s been fighting to get back to full strength. 

Having already won the most prestigious medal there is to win in the sport, Lee could have decided to hang up her grips. However, she still feels she has more to give.  

“I feel like there’s a lot more in me,” Lee told the media after podium training. “Before the diagnosis I was doing really good. I was coming up with new combinations and new skills … that’s definitely what is inspiring me because I already know I can do it, so if I can just get myself back to that place, I’ll be right on for the Olympics hopefully.”

Undoubtedly in the back of her mind for Paris is an Olympic gold medal on the uneven bars, an event she was a heavy favorite to win in Tokyo. But, after missing a few connections in the finals, she settled for bronze. There’s no doubt Lee will be looking for redemption in 2024, but for now, she’s taking things day by day.

Due to her kidney, Lee said she’s not training as much as she used to but takes full advantage of the days she is feeling good. 

“Whenever I’m having a really good day I try to take advantage of that as much as I can but on the days where I can’t, I just work more basics and turns and dance elements because those are more important, too! When I’m having a good day, I’m more focused on the gymnastics part of it.”

Although Lee said she is not putting any pressure on herself to win any medals in Hoffman Estates, she still has a mission to accomplish: qualify to the U.S. Championships. Since Lee won’t be competing All-Around (she’s not scheduled to compete on floor), she will need to score 39.000 on three events or 26.40 on two to punch her ticket to San Jose. 

It’s a task the reigning Olympic Champ should be able to do with ease, but of course, there will be pressure and nerves when she walks onto the floor Saturday night. Managing the pressure that comes with the expectations from thousands of fans inside the NOW Arena (and maybe hundreds of thousands more at home) who want to see her do what she did in Tokyo might be the biggest factor. It’s a thought that has already crossed Lee’s mind. 

“I was panicking yesterday because I was like, ‘I feel like I’m not going to be the same gymnast I was before,’” Lee said. “That made me a little bit worked up, but ever since I’ve gotten here I’ve calmed myself down and I was like, ‘Don’t put any pressure on yourself because you know you’re not ready.’ I know what I’m capable of doing right now and it’s not going to be what I’m going to do at the Olympics. So I’m just giving myself time and taking it day by day.” 

Through the nerves, however, has also come a sense of belonging. It’s been a few months since Lee has put on a leotard and stepped onto the podium, but as she prepares to make her Elite return, she can’t help but feel she’s right where she belongs.  

“I feel like today I was coming in and I was really nervous, but when I got back on the podium it felt like home,” Lee said. “I was there ready to go.”

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics 

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