Olympic all-around champ Sunisa Lee is happy competing again. She also wants a skill named for her

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FILE - Sunisa Lee reacts after competing on the balance beam during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. Lee insists shes focusing on the present rather than ahead to the Olympics. But as she went through rotations on the bars and balance beam in preparation for Saturday's, Feb. 24, 2024, USA Gymnastics Winter Cup at the Kentucky International Convention Center, it might not be long before she takes it up a notch.(AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vsquez)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Simply competing is an encouraging sign that Sunisa Lee is in a good, healthy place, especially the latter.

Health is obviously a huge matter considering the reigning Olympic all-around champion endures a kidney-related issue that halted her college career after her sophomore season last year at Auburn — and is rebounding from the emotional lows that followed. All of which makes Lee’s work toward having an uneven bars skill named after her as impressive as taking the year’s first competitive step toward this summer’s Paris Games.

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“I’m doing really good,” Lee said after Friday morning’s workout for Saturday’s USA Gymnastics Winter Cup. “I’m in remission now. We’ve got it pretty much under control for now, so we’re just kind of like keeping it consistent and trying to stay consistent with everything. Not changing any times that I’m taking my meds and just, like, trying to go slow, I guess.”

Indeed, Lee insists she’s focusing on the present rather than looking ahead to the Olympics. But as she went through rotations on the bars and balance beam in preparation for Saturday's USA Gymnastics Winter Cup at the Kentucky International Convention Center, it seemed it might not be long before she takes it up a notch.

Lee figured to share this weekend's spotlight with 2012 Olympic all-around champ Gabby Douglas, who last week announced her return to competition after an eight-year break. But Douglas withdrew on Thursday after announcing on social media that she had tested positive for COVID-19. That shifted attention toward Lee and several notable gymnasts competing, such as former NCAA all-around champion Trinity Thomas, her onetime Southeastern Conference counterpart from Florida.

“It’s so much fun seeing her out here,” Thomas said of Lee. “And it was so much fun being able to compete with her in college, too. The college environment is. I mean, it’s unreal. … And then to be back here now with me and Suni, I mean, we’re excited.”

Lee, who turns 21 on March 9, takes nothing for granted being back in the gym and seemed at ease throughout her workout. Coach Jess Graba looked on and smiled, happy to see his charge comfortable after acknowledging she was depressed from the shocking diagnosis and what to do about it — a struggle that included him.

Lee competed in last summer’s U.S. Championships and took third in the beam but Graba said this year’s training just commenced in early January. That’s only after the challenge of helping her through the valleys, a process that included just coaxing her back into the gym and finding comfort among friends before even thinking about training.

Lee didn't need long to find her spark, which Graba is working to maintain.

“She’s happy she’s doing what she wants to do,” he said. “She’s healthy. Those are the main things. And this makes her feel better. So, if that gets her out of bed in the morning and gets her into doing something else with her, get her mind off that stuff, then that’s what we do.”

Lee’s workout on the bars, her specialty, featured a peek at what drives her: at developing a full-layout variation of the Jaeger.

It’s an intricate sequence in which she releases from the high bar while holding a reverse grip, then does a full twist in midair before catching the bar and swinging in the opposite direction. Lee hopes to use it in international competition and have it entered into the sport’s Code of Points as something new -- in much the same way Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic all-around champ and the sport’s most decorated American gymnast, has five elements named for her.

Lee sounded coy about whether she’ll do it on Saturday. Just having the chance to fine-tune things seems more important after one of her biggest challenges — and certainly fulfilling.

“I think it went really well,” she said. “I did my Jaeger full (layout) for the first time, so it was a little rough. I’ve just been overthinking my series a little bit.

“I’m really proud of just because obviously it’s the first time I’m showing it and competing it and I’m just really excited about my skill.”


AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.


AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

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