Web Stories Thursday, July 25

Tokyo Olympics all-around champion Suni Lee is officially headed to Paris for the 2024 Games, along with four other outstanding American gymnasts. But despite her success in 2021, returning for her second Olympic Games was far from guaranteed due to Lee’s health issues over the past year or so, including two types of kidney disease.

Speaking to TODAY’s Hoda Kotb in an exclusive interview aired July 1, Lee said “it feels absolutely insane” to have made the team.

“There were so many times where I thought about quitting and just giving up because I was so sick, and it was just so hard to stay motivated, watching everybody get better, and I’m just like I can’t even get back into the gym and constantly doubting myself,” the 21-year-old recalled.

“But once I had those people around me who lifted me up and supported me and just made sure that I was good, I knew that this is something that I wanted.”

“We didn’t think I would be here. So getting through all of those events and … everything that we had to go through this week to get to where we are right now, it was just such a hard, incredible journey,” she added.

Less than a year after she won big in Tokyo, Lee announced that she would be making a run for the 2024 Paris Games. But her route to the Olympics became more complicated when she was diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease in 2023.

After a temporary pause to focus on her health, Lee returned to training, determined to qualify for her spot on Team USA.

“This comeback was so much more than my return to elite gymnastics. It was me proving to myself that I can overcome hard things, and to hopefully inspire others to never let life’s setbacks stop you from going after your dreams,” she wrote on Instagram in 2023.

As we count down to the Paris Olympics, here’s a look back at what Lee has shared about her physical and mental health journey over the last few years.

RELATED: Suni Lee’s dad shares her story of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics

Suni Lee has an incurable kidney disease

Lee shocked her fans in 2023 when she announced that she was retiring from college gymnastics early to handle a health matter.

“I have been dealing with a non-gymnastics health related issue involving my kidneys. For my safety, the medical team did not clear me to train and compete over the last few weeks,” the then-20-year-old wrote on Twitter at the time. “I am blessed and thankful to be working with the best specialized medical team to treat and manage my diagnosis. My focus at this time is my health and recovery.”

She was diagnosed in 2023

In February 2023, the gymnast started experiencing abnormal swelling all over her body — in her ankles, face, hands and legs.

Lee told Self that her doctors ruled out an allergic reaction when the swelling remained after two weeks.

“I just kept getting more swollen … and I think I gained, like, 40 pounds,” she said.

After several rounds of tests, doctors discovered that Lee had a rare, incurable kidney condition. They would later discover that she had not one, but two forms of kidney disease, per Sports Illustrated.

Shortly after her symptoms developed, Lee left school to focus on her health.

She modified her training to accommodate her condition

While chatting with E! News in March 2024, Lee revealed that her kidney disease forced her to press pause for a few months. As a result, she “got a lot weaker.”

When she was approved to start training again, Lee had to modify her workouts and started doing physical therapy.

“My coaches have never had to deal with someone who has had two kidney diseases,” Lee said at the Team USA Media Summit in April 2024. “And obviously, I’m like, ‘OK, 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.” 

Things started to improve in January 2024

Lee told Sports Illustrated that she got a call from her doctor in January 2024 that changed everything.

“That’s when she started saying, ‘I think they’re getting a handle on it,’ ” her trainer Jess Graba told the publication. “‘I’m feeling a lot better. The doctor just called me yesterday and told me that they think they can knock down some of the medications. So I’m feeling like maybe I want to try.’”

Her condition is in remission now

While speaking at the Team USA Media Summit in April 2024, Lee said her condition is in remission and she’s almost back to her normal training schedule.

“Right now (my routines are) still a little modified,” she 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.” 

The Olympic medalist says she feels “so much better” these days and has even upped her gymnastics game.

“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,” she said. 

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

What is incurable kidney disease?

Lee hasn’t shared publicly which diagnosis she received because it may change as her medical team learns more about her specific illness, she told Self. She has described many of her symptoms, including swelling, cramping, headaches, hot flashes and cold spells.

While chronic kidney disease is common, Lee’s particular condition is not, Self reported.

Per the Cleveland Clinic, chronic kidney disease (CKD), which is not curable, occurs when the kidneys stop working as they’re supposed to due to damage. Since kidneys work as filters and remove toxins from the body, waste “builds up in your blood” when you have CKD.

“Kidney disease is called ‘chronic’ because kidney function slowly decreases over time. CKD can lead to kidney failure, which is also called end-stage kidney disease. Not everyone with CKD will develop kidney failure, but the disease will often worsen without treatment,” Cleveland Clinic explains.

Symptoms include swelling, urination problems, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping and concentrating, reduce appetite, fatigue, shortness of breath, cramps, nausea and more.

The incurable condition has five stages and can be managed with dialysis or transplant in its late stages. Lee has been taking medication as part of her treatment plan, which has changed over time.

She has eczema

At a young age, Lee started noticing that her skin was red, itchy and “always uncomfortable,” she told PopSugar. When over the counter products failed to address her symptoms, the young gymnast sought out an official diagnosis.

Lee soon discovered that she had eczema, a condition that’s characterized by dry, itchy and bumpy skin.

“Eczema is a type of dermatitis. Dermatitis is a group of conditions that cause skin inflammation,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.

There are multiple forms of eczema and symptoms typically manifest in childhood then “last into adulthood,” though it can “affect anyone at any age.”

At one time, Lee’s eczema was “really bad” on her legs, arms and behind her neck and was “swollen and inflamed,” she told PopSugar.

“It made me not want to be seen anywhere because I knew people were looking at it because it was so inflamed. It has definitely taken a hit to my security levels when I’m competing, because it feels like people are looking at me,” she explained.

When she landed a spot on the 2021 U.S. Olympics team, Lee was worried that her eczema would be on display for everyone to see.

“It was something that I felt ashamed of, being in a leotard and competing for Team USA,” she recalled. “Our skin is very exposed, cameras are always on us, people are always taking pictures, and it’s hard when you’re kind of ashamed to be looking at your own body or your skin because you can see that it’s rough or flaky.”

With the help of her doctors and dermatologists, Lee has a handle on her eczema and believes the condition isn’t “something to be ashamed or embarrassed about.”

Everyone has different eczema triggers, including foods, fabrics, weather, soaps, makeup and more. For Lee, she said she’s particularly affected by stress.

“I get the worst stress eczema flare-ups,” she said. “At the 2021 Olympics, I was having a flare-up on my neck that I thankfully got handled right before the competition. But it happens a lot when I’m stressed and I can’t sleep. I get really bad flare-ups. So then I’m constantly itching and uncomfortable.”

She’s been outspoken about mental health

Similar to her friend and teammate Simone Biles, Lee has been open about the mental health challenges that come along with being a gymnast in the public eye.

“I talk to and listen to a bunch of other athletes, and I’m constantly trying to hear and understand how some people do the things they do,” she told PopSugar. “And it’s been so helpful because I was scared to talk about it for a long time, but when Simone and other athletes started talking about it, it made me feel more comfortable.”

She’s experienced imposter syndrome and anxiety attacks

“I feel like after the Olympics, there’s just been so much doubt in like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have won Olympics, blah, blah, blah,’ and it really hits my soul,” she told ESPN in 2022.

Over time, Lee began to believe that she “didn’t deserve to win.”

“It was very hard for me to motivate myself the first couple of weeks (when I began college) because it was like I didn’t want to do gymnastics, I hated it,” she continued.

Lee said she was “a wreck” at her first few college gymnastics meets and experienced “anxiety attacks.”

She goes to therapy

“It’s always good to have the outside help and just to be able to talk to somebody that doesn’t really know what’s going on,” she told Women’s Health.

She enjoys journaling

When the pressure is on before a gymnastics competition, Lee likes to process her feelings by journaling.

“It has been something that is both therapeutic and so incredibly helpful in my preparation for meets,” she told Women’s Health.

A self-described “very private person,” Lee is the first to admit that she doesn’t “share how I totally feel all the time.” While talking with PopSugar, she described why she prefers writing down her feelings.

“I write down my ‘whys,’ my goals, my keywords, and I visualize a lot during my routines because it’s important to remember them when you’re out there and nervous and trying to block everything out,” she said.

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