Suni Lee Makes Elite Gymnastics Comeback After Kidney Issues: "Feeling Blessed"

Suni Lee has her eyes set on the Olympics again. This weekend, the 20-year-old competed in the US Classic, her first elite gymnastics competition since the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. She scored a 14.500 on the balance beam, securing second place in the event and qualifying for the US Gymnastics Championships in San Jose from Aug. 24-27, which serve as an important step on the path toward the 2024 Paris Olympics — where, let us remind you, Lee is the reigning all-around champion.

After finishing her beam routine at the US Classic, Lee tearfully hugged her coach. She later took to Instagram after the competition to share her feelings, writing: "feeling blessed & so so grateful. this comeback was so much more than my return to elite gymnastics. It was me proving to myself that I can overcome hard things, and to hopefully inspire others to never let life's setbacks stop you from going after your dreams. see y'all in San Jose🌟."

After the Tokyo Games, Lee dedicated her energy to collegiate gymnastics, competing for two seasons at Auburn University, where her 2022 season was the most decorated in program history. Ahead of the US Classic, Lee told POPSUGAR she was "really excited," but also "super nervous" to return to the elite scene, in part due to a kidney-related health issue she's been facing. "It's scary getting back out there, and having this condition has been really difficult," she said.

In April, Lee announced that the condition would cut short the end of her sophomore Auburn season, and leading up to the US Classic, it certainly affected her training. "I have been in and out of the gym just because there's just so many doctor's appointments, and I'm taking a lot of medication, so it kind of varies every day," Lee told "I could wake up very swollen some days and not be able to put my fingers inside my grips. It's really difficult to kind of work through, but on the days that I can do stuff and I am feeling good, I try and take advantage of that and just get everything done."

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Lee first announced her return to elite gymnastics in November 2022, when she posted a video to Twitter and Instagram explaining her decision. "Today, I am sharing a decision that has weighed on me for a really long time," she says in the video. "As an athlete that has competed at the highest level, on the world's biggest stage, I've been fortunate enough to experience that once-in-a-lifetime feeling and the indescribable emotion when a gold medal is draped around your neck. But I don't want it to just be once in a lifetime."

At the end of June, as part of her work with Lego's Team Unstoppable — a cohort of women, athletes, and changemakers committed to breaking down the barriers of play limitations — Lee talked with POPSUGAR about her return to elite gymnastics and saying goodbye to her college gymnastics career, which she has called the "best two years of [her] life."

In spite of her health struggles, Lee still says that "this past season was probably the best season" and a "really great setup going into my elite competition season." One thing she loved about the collegiate gymnastics environment was that she got to train with a team versus by herself. If you've watched college gymnastics, you've likely also seen how lively the meets are — full of camaraderie, sideline dancing, and supportive cheering from teammates and people in the stands. This is in stark contrast to the more serious and individualistic elite gymnastics scene.

"It was super exciting going out there competing with the team, having all these girls behind your back no matter how well or how bad you did out there — like, at the end of the day, that was your family," she says. "I mean, the energy was amazing and the crowds . . . it's going to be a little different going back to elite and competing because when you're up there, you're competing for yourself and don't necessarily have a big team behind you. It's just you up on the podium."

Despite the fun team vibe, college wasn't a cakewalk for Lee, who was juggling a lot; she came home from the Olympics to a whirlwind of press, then competed on "Dancing With the Stars" and jumped directly into college life — and things didn't slow down once she was there.

"I'm not gonna lie, college was really difficult — having to do school and then on top of it, I had a lot of work stuff, so I was traveling a lot, and then making sure that I was maintaining my stuff in the gym. And just staying strong mentally, too, was very hard," she says. "But I feel like I learned that I was a lot stronger than I thought, and that I'm capable of doing anything that I want if I just put my mind to it."

No doubt, Lee will bring that mindset into her hopeful attempt to repeat her Olympic dream.

"I'm super excited to see all my friends again and to compete on the big podium and just be a part of Team USA . . . and a lot of the girls that I competed in college with are also making comebacks," she says.

Lee has been one of several US Olympic gymnasts to compete in the NCAA for the past two seasons, including her Tokyo teammates Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum. Chiles and Carey both simultaneously balanced their elite careers with the NCAA, becoming the first US Olympic women gymnasts to compete in an elite competition after a season of college gymnastics.

Lee will be heading to the US Gymnastics Championships alongside teammate Simone Biles, who also competed at the US Classic, which marked her first competition since Tokyo. Biles came away with the all-around title, as well as first place in vault, floor, and balance beam.

"I know what I have to do to get [to Paris]," Lee says in the video posted to her social media about her return to elite gymnastics. "I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and putting in the work. Gymnastics is my passion and something that I love so deeply because it pushes me to be the best version of myself every single day."

That idea of endless potential is what resonated with Lee when it came to joining Lego's Team Unstoppable, which prioritizes uplifting and celebrating girls' interests, passions, and imaginations. "I think it's so important to spread the message that no matter what your passions are, if you continue to believe in yourself and dream big, you can unlock your greatness," she tells POPSUGAR. "It's just something that I tell myself every single day because not every single day is gonna be a good day. When I'm training, it helps to think about the future and what I'm doing this for."

You can watch the senior women's division of the US Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 25, 26, and 27 on Peacock and NBC.