As the reigning Olympic all-around champ, Suni Lee admits her crown can sometimes feel a little heavy. She noticed it earlier this month, when she fretted that fans would expect her to be in perfect form during her first elite-level gymnastics meet since the Tokyo Games.
Lee knew she wouldn't be flawless at the U.S. Classic. The St. Paul native hadn't competed anywhere in five months because of a kidney ailment, let alone in the top tier of her sport. Despite those circumstances, she also knew she couldn't escape comparisons to the Suni who won Summer Games gold in 2021.
"I was telling [coach Jess Graba] I was panicking,'' she told reporters Aug. 4, before the Classic. "I feel like I'm not going to be the same gymnast I was before, and it's going to be really hard to have that pressure. I'm coming back, but I also have the title of being Olympic champion, and that made me a little worked up.''
Lee gave herself the grace to be just who she was in that moment. Her performance was good enough to get her to this week's U.S. championships, where she will again face the expectations that come with being an Olympic all-around champ — ready or not.
The meet runs Thursday through Sunday at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., and will crown men's and women's champions in senior and junior divisions. It's an important steppingstone toward Lee's ultimate goal of returning to the Olympic stage at next year's Paris Games.
She's not the only one staring at a high bar. Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the all-around, will try for her eighth U.S. all-around title — marking the first time two Olympic all-around champions have competed at the same U.S. championships. Like Lee, Biles ended a long layoff with an outstanding performance at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.
Others in the powerhouse women's field include fellow Olympic medalists Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, plus four other athletes who own world championships medals.
“This week, for Suni, is mainly a training week for world [championship] trials and to get herself back into the swing of these long competitions.”
Lee, 20, will perform in just two events — balance beam and vault — during the women's competition Friday and Sunday. She also limited herself to those two at the U.S. Classic, qualifying for nationals with a score of 14.500 on beam — second only to Biles — and a 13.500 on vault.
She's still affected by the kidney condition, which prevents her from training at full strength every day. With 10 months to go until the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials at Target Center, Lee is not measuring herself by what she was in Tokyo, but by what she could be next year when a berth at the Paris Games is on the line.
"I'm taking it slow, one day at a time,'' Lee told reporters at the U.S. Classic. "I don't try to put too much pressure on myself.
"I feel like there's a lot more in me. Before the diagnosis and all that stuff, I was doing really good, coming up with new combinations and new skills. That's what's inspiring me. I already know I can do it. So if I just get myself back to that pace, then I'll be right on for the Olympics, hopefully.''
Lee's kidney ailment was detected last winter during her sophomore year at Auburn, bringing an early end to her final college season. She returned home to train at her longtime gym, Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, with Graba.
Her health has made her schedule unpredictable. She said she is "in and out of the gym,'' training at full strength on the days when she feels good and backing off when she doesn't. On challenging days, Lee can still work on less strenuous elements such as dance moves.
She didn't perform her most difficult routines at the U.S. Classic, and she kept a light schedule. Lee planned to skip floor exercise altogether and do her signature event, uneven bars, only if she needed that score to qualify for nationals. She scratched following her high scores on beam and vault; after the meet, she said she wasn't ready to compete on bars.
Graba is continuing that wait-and-see approach at this week's championships. The composition of Lee's beam routine and the type of vault she does will depend on how she is feeling.
"We have a couple upgrades to her start value on beam, but we'll see how they warm up,'' Graba told the Star Tribune. "Vault is the same way. This week, for Suni, is mainly a training week for world [championship] trials and to get herself back into the swing of these long competitions.''
Those trials are Sept. 19-22 in Katy, Texas. Six athletes will be chosen to compete at the world championships Sept. 30-Oct. 8 in Antwerp, Belgium, another key milepost on the road to Paris.
At the U.S. Classic, Lee said she had to push through fear and doubt. Heading into the U.S. championships, that has given way to gratitude.
"Just thinking about not being able to do gymnastics was very emotional,'' she said. "To be back was just surreal. I'm just taking it day by day.''