Suni Lee kidney disease: How USA gymnastics star recovered from condition that threatened Olympics

Suni Lee seemed on track to make another Olympics. She would compete her second and final year of NCAA gymnastics at Auburn in 2023 before returning to elite training a year before the Games.

Her plans were halted as soon as they began when she was diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease. 

The 2021 Olympic all-around gold medalist hasn’t let that stop her. Just months away from Paris 2024, Lee is on the verge of her second Olympics.

There’s still a lot of gymnastics to go before that point, though — starting with her first elite all-around competition in years at the U.S. Championships in Fort Worth. Four smooth routines later, and she’ll be one step closer to her continuing her dream at the 2024 Olympic Trials.

The gymnast had endless hurdles to overcome to get to this point. The Sporting News explains Lee’s kidney diagnosis and how her gymnastics career nearly ended early.  

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Suni Lee kidney disease, explained

Lee’s sophomore season at Auburn came to an abrupt end in February 2023, just part of the way through the season. Her absence from the lineup was presumed an illness, but no one knew the severity until April, when it was revealed Lee has two kidney diseases. 

“I could not bend my legs the slightest, I couldn’t squeeze my fingers, my face was swollen,” she said at Team USA’s media summit last month. “I looked like a completely different person. It was very, very miserable.”

The 21-year-old was in constant pain and suffered from nausea and lightheadedness on top of it, she added. She could hardly go outside, she told Self Magazine, not feeling or looking like herself. Lee couldn’t even confide in her teammates or mother without the fear of additional stress.

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The worst part? She couldn’t go to the gym. Her body was too swollen to flip properly or grab the bar.

After her diagnosis, the gymnast ended her career as a Tiger. She moved from Auburn back home to Minnesota for treatment.

On top of the physical symptoms, she was struggling mentally. Lee’s doctors told her she may never be able to do gymnastics again, even though she already announced she was planning a comeback for the 2024 Olympics.

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Lee began managing her symptoms once her diagnosis was official. She slowly returned to training and eased off the intensity that elite gymnastics requires. She competed vault and beam at the U.S. Championships in August, earning a bronze medal on beam. Soon after, Lee received an invitation to the World Team selection camp. She declined and took the rest of the year off.

On Jan. 4, she received a phone call that changed everything. She can’t say much of what the call entailed except that she could return to training, she told NBC Olympics:

It was just like a simple phone call. I can’t really talk about it, but it was a simple phone call. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to the gym tomorrow and I’m gonna be better than I ever was.’ And that was the day I was like, ‘Yep, this is what I want. And I’m gonna put my mind into it.’

Nearly two months later, she competed at Winter Cup. But it wasn’t the return she wanted, as she fell twice on bars and once on beam. Back to the gym she went. 

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In May, she competed at the Core Classic. While originally planning on all-around, Lee decided to drop bars. If she had another bad day and didn’t qualify to the U.S. Championships, her Olympic return was done. If she competed on a few select events, however, she would be able to petition for entry to the Championships.

It was the right move. Lee ultimately won beam, earning a 14.6 to edge out Simone Biles. Afterwards, she successfully petitioned to go to the U.S. Championships, where she’ll compete all-around for the first time in 15 months.

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Naturally, Lee keeps her illness and progress under wraps. But she will share that she hasn’t felt this good in a long time.

“I feel so much better,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m way better already than I was at the last Olympics.’ And I didn’t even think that I could get better than that. So that gives me a little more comfort and knowing that anything that I put my mind to, I can accomplish.” 

Will Suni Lee make the 2024 Paris Olympics?

Making the Olympics is a long process for gymnasts. They must qualify for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships to be considered. They can qualify for the competition in several ways.

Lee qualified by petitioning to compete all-around. She competed at the Winter Cup and Core Classic but not on all four events, allowing her to submit a request for all-around at the U.S. Championships.

The top two all-around gymnasts at the competition will automatically be selected for the 2024 Olympic Trials. At least 10 more athletes will be invited by the selection committee. 

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Lee’s chances at making the 2024 Paris Olympics are high given her experience and expertise, particularly on beam and bars. But it’s not guaranteed, as it’s up to the selection committee’s discretion when it comes to the best five athletes.

Her best shot at being selected to the team is to excel as a beam and bar specialist, since the all-around spots on the team will presumably go to Simone Biles and Shilese Jones. Lee boasts one of the most difficult bar routines in the world when she adds the full-twisting jaeger, which she hopes to get named.

For now, not having fully competed in a national competition in years, Lee just needs to have a strong and consistent showing at the U.S. Championship to show she is ready to return to the big stage.

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