Quitting was never an option for Suni Lee in 2024 Olympic journey

Before being selected for the 2024 Olympics, Lee was diagnosed with two kidney diseases that caused many to question the future of her career.
Suni Lee’s 14.875 score on the bars on Sunday night was the highest overall at the Olympic Trials.
Suni Lee’s 14.875 score on the bars on Sunday night was the highest overall at the Olympic Trials.
Image by Pooja Singh

Sentiments surged for St. Paul’s Suni Lee as she carried a bouquet of mixed white and blue flowers onto the competition floor where her teammate Jordan Chiles brushed away Lee’s tears with her USA-themed nails.

Lee just found out she punched a ticket to Paris to compete at the 2024 Olympics in July.

The emotions were a rare sight from Lee, who hardly showcased a sliver of such during the trials. Her tears on Sunday night were a testament to the two kidney diseases and weight gain from the last year that ended her collegiate career at Auburn.

But succumbing to disaster at the United States Olympic Trials was not on Lee’s to-do list. 

“I have not stopped crying,” Lee said after being named an Olympian. “There were so many times where I thought about just quitting and walking away from the sport because I didn’t think that I would ever get to this point.”

When Lee was diagnosed with her incurable kidney disease early last year, nobody quite knew what her future looked like. Doctors suggested she stop competing altogether.

Her coach, Jess Graba from Midwest Gymnastics, understood what was at stake for Lee at the trials. The two worked together since Lee was six years old to prepare her body for the physical demands of the competition. The unorthodox obstacle for them was the mental element. 

Lee decided to make another run at the Olympics before her kidney disease diagnosis but the sickness threw her and Graba a curveball.

“There was a lot of doubt and a lot of fear,” Graba said. “To her credit, she’s tried to find a way to make it work.”

Graba said he worked on reminding Lee that the Olympics is about her, not other people’s opinions.

Image by Pooja Singh

With the trials in Lee’s home state, she said she was a little “freaked out” after day one. She met with her therapist on Saturday to “get (her) mind right” after three of her competitors suffered injuries, ending their Olympic aspirations, on Friday.

The people close to Lee knew her commitment and how hard she would push herself to earn another Olympic berth. Graba’s brother, Jeff Graba, was Lee’s coach at Auburn and met her after she won the Olympic all-around gold medal in Tokyo in 2021.

Lee balanced going to class, competing at the collegiate level and grooving with the Australian-American dancer, Sasha Farber, on ABC Network’s Dancing with the Stars while facing the demands of a college freshman.

“She had three or four full-time jobs and did a better job balancing it than most people do balancing one full-time job,” Jeff Graba said.

As Lee competed in a sport with a high level of risk, Jeff Graba said her drive to succeed outweighed her fear of failure. 

The Olympic Trials put that philosophy to the test.

Lee stayed loose doing handstands and cartwheels on the arena floor before each rotation. She chatted with Simone Biles, Kaliyah Lincoln and Chiles on her home base.

Biles said she and the team offered Lee constant encouragement to pursue a spot on Team USA.

“We’re always going to prioritize mental health,” Biles said. “I think now athletes are a little bit more in tune and we trust what our gut is saying and just taking mental health a little bit more serious.”

Whether it was the talks with Biles, the stretching or possibly even the strings of Lindsey Stirling that conquered the Target Center sound system as Lee debuted a new floor routine, when all was said and done, Lee stood beside the four other gymnasts that would represent the United States with her in Paris.

With the next challenge inbound, Lee has new goals. She said she wants to make all-around finals and earn a gold medal on the beam.

“I feel like I always make the final and then I always mess up,” Lee said, rolling her eyes. “So annoying.”

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