Strictly going by standings, reigning Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee finished last at the U.S. Championships — yet ask anybody who knows her and they will view those results in a completely different light.
“I’m beyond proud of her that she was able to come out here and show what she did,” said Jordan Chiles, Lee’s good friend and runner-up to eight-time champion Simone Biles on Sunday night.
“It is exciting to see her overcome everything that she has and come back out here stronger because I think it does send a good message to the younger ones,” Biles offered.
The score sheet with Biles on top and Lee at the very bottom hardly told the story of Lee’s tumultuous year dealing with a kidney-related health issue and just how much it took to even get to San Jose this past week.
In and out of the hospital because of the kidney issue, the 20-year-old Lee was forced to end her sophomore collegiate season early at Auburn. On April 3, she posted on social media: “My focus at this time is my health and recovery.”
So the fact she competed at the U.S. Championships mattered so much more than the tie for 27th place. Oh, and Lee still got to stand on the podium with a bronze finish on beam. She didn’t compete at all on uneven bars — her signature event — or floor exercise, causing the lowest score.
Capping an emotional weekend at the SAP Center, Lee smiled and waved in her sparkling white leotard while accepting her medal for beam with a two-day score of 27.850.
Lee’s eyes are still clearly set on the Paris Olympics next summer, seemingly determined as ever to overcome the latest challenges in her young life.
If anyone knows how to persevere, it’s Lee.
She captured gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games while far from full strength from a broken foot, and still heartbroken from losing two family members to COVID-19 — all while her father recovered from an accident that paralyzed him when he fell off a ladder.
Biles, who has made her own remarkable comeback to capture a record eighth national title, praised Lee for discovering her limits to balance the push to win with the need to step back.
“We know that we have to take care of our bodies, whether that’s mentally or physically, so take that break and come back stronger because at the end of the day, gymnastics is just what we do,” Biles said. “And we also have to remember that and we’re not going to be doing this forever, so at the end of the day it’s really nice to show those young kids that but I also think it’s our story to write, our ending to tell.”
Next up, Lee will quickly get back to work hoping for an invitation to the U.S. selection camp where a team will be named ahead of world championships that begin late next month in Antwerp, Belgium.
U.S. Olympic medalist Chellsie Memmel, the technical lead for USA Gymnastics, admires Lee’s courage to keep fighting through each tough day. Nobody is counting her out to make the Americans’ five-woman squad.
“I’m proud of what she’s able to do dealing with everything that she is going through,” Memmel said. “So to be able to come out here each day and perform very nice on beam and vault, she’s not just doing those events, we’ve gotten to see her train on bars. It’s inspiring.”
Lee could be chosen to compete in just a couple of events for the Americans. Whatever happens, Lee has a huge cheering section as she goes forward.
“The difficulties she is going through with her health and everything, it’s really hard to know that you’ve been through an Olympic cycle and you’re trying to do it again but knowing it’s in a different condition, you need people there to support,” Chiles said, “and I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that I’m there for her because she is remarkable and an amazing human being.”
In March 2022, Lee shared a handwritten journal entry on social media with several messages to herself.
“GIVE YOURSELF GRACE,” she wrote.
“Be nice to yourself, you’re not always going to be perfect. This isn’t the end, just the beginning.”
Perhaps, now, this beginning is the path of recovery to be full strength for Paris 2024.
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