Olympic gymnastics champion Suni Lee pointing to 2024. It could be a long road.

Suni Lee
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HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (AP) — The anxiety hit Sunisa Lee unexpectedly.

The 2021 Olympic gymnastics champion was preparing for her return to elite gymnastics at Saturday’s U.S. Classic when the fear of having who she is measured against who she was during her somewhat unexpected victory in Tokyo two years ago washed over her.

“I was panicking,” Lee said Friday. “I feel like I’m not going to be the same gymnast I was before. And it’s going to be really hard because a lot of people add to that pressure.”

The moment quickly passed.

This is the difference — perhaps the biggest one — between the 18-year-old who had three medals (one of each color) draped around her neck in Japan and the 20-year-old who has spent six months grappling with a kidney problem that cut short her sophomore year at Auburn, limited her training and tempered her expectations as she eyes a trip to Paris next summer.

“I’ve like just calmed myself down,” she said. “I was like, ‘Don’t put any pressure on yourself because you know that you’re not ready.’ I know what I’m capable of doing right now, and it’s not going to be like what I’m going to do at the Olympics.”

That doesn’t mean adjusting her own expectations has been easy. Lee nearly quit during the quarantine portion of the COVID-19 pandemic and spent the run-up to Tokyo battling ankle injuries that at times made it difficult for her to walk, let alone put together the kind of routines required to reach the top of her sport.

She did it anyway, making the Olympic team before becoming a star in Japan, where her thrilling final put her in the “first-name only” pantheon of the sports greats alongside fellow Olympic champions like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Nastia Liukin.

Lee made it a point to try to stick to the plans she made long before Tokyo. She enrolled at Auburn less than two weeks after her triumph and spent two years helping turn the Tigers’ women’s gymnastics program into very much “a thing” on the Plains.

That didn’t mean it was easy. She ended up taking classes remotely to accommodate a busy schedule and cut down on distractions. She thrived on the competition floor, taking advantage of NCAA scoring that puts an emphasis on execution rather than difficulty.

Her gymnastics became more refined. She trained smarter, not harder. Everything was lining up for her to make a near-seamless transition back to the elite level.

Then she started to feel run down, the result of a kidney-related condition that causes unexplained swelling and fatigue that can materialize out of nowhere. The spring and summer have been a flurry of doctor’s appointments, the occasional hospital visit and — when her body is up for it — training for a spot on the five-woman team that likely will head to Paris next July as a heavy favorite to claim gold.

Coach Jess Graba estimates Lee is about “60 percent” of where she was pre-Tokyo. There will be days when she will cut practice short because she simply doesn’t have the juice. There also will be days when she’s feeling so good they feel like they can make up a bit for lost time.

“We’re just trying to like, be smart, not do anything stupid is the main thing,” Graba said.

That includes not pushing it this weekend. The issue isn’t her skills, it’s being able to stand up to the rigors of stringing them all together in competition.

The adrenaline figures to return in front of a packed NOW Arena on Saturday night at a meet that will also — oh by the way — feature Biles’ return to competition following a two-year break.

Lee believes the adrenaline won’t get the best of her and tease her into doing something her body might not be ready for. She’s playing the long game, even if that means making some short-term concessions.

The gymnast that takes the floor this weekend won’t be the same one that will take the floor in San Jose this month at the U.S. Championships provided she qualifies. Who knows where she’ll be a year from now?

If Lee has learned anything, it’s that she needs to learn to adjust and adapt. She didn’t expect to leave Tokyo with her sport’s biggest prize in tow. Her life changed in an instant. Her goals, however, have not.

She’s intent on getting to Paris, more to improve on the bronze she won on her signature event the uneven bars rather than defend her all-around title. She knows two hours on the floor a full year before the Games won’t determine whether she makes it.

So she’ll salute the judges, and then go out and be the 2023 version of Suni Lee, not the 2021 version. She knows what she’s capable of. Who knows what the 2024 version might look like.

“I really know that I can do it,” Lee said. “So if I just get myself back to (a healthy) place, then I’ll be right on for the Olympics.”

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