At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Suni Lee was on top of the world. At her first Olympic Games she walked away with three medals, including the sports most coveted medal – the all-around gold. It was more than she ever could have envisioned. 

After her whirlwind Olympic experience and all of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that followed, Lee shifted gears – focusing on her collegiate career at Auburn University, where she would go on to make history as the first Olympic all-around champion to compete at the NCAA level.

Lee spent two seasons at Auburn, smashing records, winning titles and leading her team to new heights. Her confidence was at an all-time high.  

“I felt like I was really at my peak,” Lee said at the 2024 Team USA media summit. “I was way better than I was at the Olympics. So I was feeling really confident in myself.”

But then life turned upside down. 

Suni Lee at the 2024 Team USA Media Summit
U.S. Olympic athlete Suni Lee poses for a photo at the USOC Media Summit in preparation for the Paris 2024 Olympic Summer Games
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Lee was diagnosed with a kidney condition in early 2023, which ended her career at Auburn ahead of schedule. Lee returned home to Minnesota, unsure if she would ever be able to compete in gymnastics again. 

“I was just so afraid of the fear of like … I already announced that I was coming back for the Olympics,” Lee said. “And that's when I was like, ‘Well, I can't pull out now.’”

Lee was limited in training, as she navigated doctors appointments and a new medication regimen. Managing the rigors of elite-level gymnastics with her diagnosis was – and remains – uncharted territory.

“My coaches have never had to deal with someone who has had two kidney diseases,” Lee said. “And obviously, I'm like, ‘Okay, I don't know any other gymnasts that have two kidney diseases that have had to go through this.’ So it's all a learning process. And we're taking it day by day.” 

Lee battled her way back to elite competition on vault and the balance beam, even securing a bronze medal on beam at the U.S. Championships. However, just a few weeks later, she declined an invite to the world team selection camp.

“I think my lowest point was after championships,” Lee said. “I don't know. I pulled out of the world championship selection camp and I stopped doing gymnastics for four months.” 

There were days when Lee admits it was hard to get out of bed. The battle became not just physical, but mental as the Olympic year loomed. 

But then came January 4, 2024. 

The date is forever etched in Lee’s memory thanks to a phone call she says changed everything for her. 

“It was just like a simple phone call,” Lee said. “I can’t really talk about it, but it was a simple phone call. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to the gym tomorrow and I'm gonna be better than I ever was.’ And that was the day I was like, ‘Yep, this is what I want. And I'm gonna put my mind into it.’"

By design, Lee has kept a lot of her journey private; not ready to expose all the details as she actively navigates the path to what she hopes will be her second Olympic Games in Paris. 

What’s most important is that in her own heart – even if she sometimes has doubts – Lee knows what she has been through and she knows what she’s capable of. 

“I know that I can,” Lee said. “And I will.” 

Countdown to Paris

The only thing the Olympic all-around champ feels she has to prove is something to herself. It’s not about winning. And it’s not about proving to the world that she deserved to win in Tokyo. 

“This time is more (about) proving it to myself and proving that I deserve to be on the Olympic team,” Lee said. “Not so much like I need to go out there and win it again (to) prove to these people that told me that I didn’t deserve to win. It's more proving to myself that I deserve to make the Olympic team and that I deserve to be there with all the other athletes.” 

The notion that Lee wouldn’t have won if four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles didn’t withdraw from the competition is something Lee has read countless times on social media, and has often battled in her own mind. 

“Of course, in the back of my head I’m like, ‘Oh, you didn't deserve to win,” Lee said. “And I told myself that so much because of the circumstances … I see that (comment) every single day. And I see people comparing me to other athletes every single day. And that's part of the reason why I stay off social media because I'm like, ‘In my head, I already don't think that I should have won.’ So when you see it from other people and that many people are saying the same thing over and over … it's very hard mentally.”

Yet, it was Lee who was able to rise to the occasion on that day. With the pressure of keeping the United States' golden streak alive, Lee executed remarkably to win a fifth consecutive all-around Olympic title for the U.S women, edging out a strong opponent in Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade

Only six American women have ever won the title and Lee’s name will forever be on that list. 

She doesn't look at her gold medal often, but knows exactly where to find it if she ever needs a reminder of her capabilities. 

As Lee chatted with the media at the Team USA Media Summit, there was a sense of calmness in her voice. 

Lee is in remission and back to a consistent training schedule. 

“Right now (my routines are) still a little modified,” Lee said. “I think I'm at a good spot, though. I don't want to peak too early. So it feels normal. I feel like I'm going at a good pace. I'm getting all my routines back and working on consistency.” 

There were many times when she doubted she would return to the level she was before, that she wouldn’t be “the same Suni,” but her coaches Jess Graba and Alison Lim have helped her find confidence through the resiliency she showed in the hardest of times. 

“My doctor was telling me he didn't think I'd be able to do gymnastics ever again,” Lee said. “So to even be here is an accomplishment in itself. And I'm super proud of myself.” 

Lee still needs to qualify to the U.S. Championships, which she can do through the upcoming American Classic (April 25-28) or the Core Hydration Classic (May 18). From there the focus would shift to qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials (June 27-30). 

What the future holds remains to be seen. However, Lee is feeling the best she has felt in quite some time. And while she’s taking the journey one step at a time, she’s more eager than ever before to get back out on the competition floor. 

“I feel so much better,” Lee said. “I'm like, ‘I'm way better already than I was at the last Olympics.’ And I didn't even think that I could get better than that. So that gives me a little more comfort and knowing that anything that I put my mind to, I can accomplish.”