Sunisa Lee is looking like an Olympian again, just in time for Paris

FORT WORTH — Sunisa Lee floated through the air, transitioning from one bar to the other as she progressed through a difficult series of release elements. Lee’s rise to the Olympic all-around title three years ago was fueled by these complex routines on bars, executed with precision. Her handstands are sharp. Her toes stay pointed. But lately, Lee’s signature performances on this apparatus have been absent.

On the first day of the national championships Friday, Lee’s trademark routine finally returned. She’s excellent on beam, too, but this season, bars had been the missing piece.

A kidney-related health issue derailed Lee’s training last year, and her run toward a second Olympics stalled. At every elite competition since the Tokyo Games, Lee had performed only on select apparatuses, never in the all-around. She attempted a competitive routine on bars several months ago, but it didn’t go well, meaning she hadn’t had a hit bars routine at the elite level since Tokyo.

That changed as soon as she landed her full-twisting double tuck dismount Friday evening. Lee’s routine was simple — by her world-class standards, at least — but solid. With a 14.300, she earned the fifth-best mark of the competition, which concludes Sunday, and she has room to improve as she adds more difficulty. After avoiding major mistakes on each apparatus, she’s in fourth place in the all-around, another critical milestone in her path toward Paris.

Through two seasons at Auburn, before she was diagnosed with two kidney diseases, Lee competed in the all-around 19 times, but those NCAA-level routines are much different from the ones she needs to refine on her way to a second Olympic berth.

Lee gradually has increased the difficulty of her elite routines since returning amid the health trouble last summer. On Friday, she showcased a double-twisting vault for the first time since the last Olympics. Lee’s coach, Jess Graba, said Lee was so focused on the upgraded vault that he didn’t want to add to the mental burden with a more difficult routine on bars.

“I don’t want too many balls juggling in the air,” Graba said. “One is enough right now.”

Lee’s methodical progression toward the Olympic trials continues. She has improved at each competition, and despite not yet including all of her most difficult skills, this performance proved she’s a serious contender for a spot in Paris. Repeating this success Sunday will bolster her case.

Just a year ago, a spot in the Paris Olympics seemed improbable. After her health issues significantly limited her training, Lee performed on only vault and beam at a pair of competitions last summer. She then withdrew from the world championships team selection event. Lee described that time as her lowest point. She didn’t train for several months. And then in January, with her health improving, she returned to the gym and resumed the gradual climb.

She struggled in her season debut in February. She had unveiled a new skill on bars, a full-twisting release element, but couldn’t hold on. Lee rotated to beam and had more trouble. The Olympic trials loomed just four months away.

By April, she showed progress. She impressed with excellent beam routine at the American Classic. Then, at the U.S. Classic in mid-May, she replicated that strong performance on beam, winning the event title, and she competed on floor for the first time in an elite meet since 2021. Now at the national championships, the meet that determines which gymnasts advance to the Olympic trials, Lee looks even better.

Graba said before the competition that Lee’s “belief in [her] stamina isn’t quite there yet.” Still, on floor, she had solid landings on her tumbling passes, and her 13.250 was slightly higher than her mark at the U.S. Classic. She doesn’t need to be excellent on floor. Her bars and beam routines are so strong that those events alone could be enough to earn a spot on the Olympic team. (After the first day of competition at nationals, Lee’s 14.200 on beam ranks third, despite a large wobble on a leap.) But climbing toward the top of the all-around standings also helps.

At this point, Graba said, the pacing strategy for Lee is to “try to keep her healthy, add one thing at a time and live to go to the next day.”

In 2021, Lee peaked just in time for Tokyo. That season, she dealt with an ankle injury and fell multiple times at the U.S. Classic. She referenced that trajectory earlier this month, remembering how “everybody was doubting me, so I think it’s okay to be where I’m at right now.”

She knows she doesn’t need to be her best quite yet. Still, this is a new challenge. Graba is used to helping athletes through bad ankles, knees and shoulders. Kidney issues presented a host of tricky situations. Lee had to find the right medication. (She has chosen not to disclose specifics about the issues.) Her body swelled as it retained too much water. She’s had to monitor her diet carefully, including by limiting her sodium intake.

Sometimes, when Lee travels for competitions or training camps, Graba purchases an air fryer after arriving so that he can cook food for her in the hotel. He usually finds the cheapest option, then leaves it behind with friends in the various cities. They cook what Graba described as “boring” recipes, such as chicken without much salt. As Lee’s health has improved, Graba said she can eat at restaurants as long as she’s cautious. But as Lee continues to perform well, it also might be time to start thinking ahead: How will Graba get an air fryer to Paris?

“I didn’t even think about that,” Graba said. “When I get to that point, yeah, that’ll be a good problem to have.”

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