St. Paul’s Suni Lee headed back to Olympics after rousing performance at Target Center

St. Paul’s Suni Lee headed back to Olympics after rousing performance at Target Center

Suni Lee rotated her body on a horizontal axis in upward transition between the uneven bars, a little bend of space and time.

Her coach, Jess Graba, stepped away and let her work. Lee stretched her legs out perpendicular to her body, extended them straight and started building momentum. She had executed her routine to perfection so far. The crowd, her home crowd, collectively steadied ahead of the dismount.

Lee launched herself, executed a furious twisting somersault and landed clean.

Pandemonium ensued.

As the ovation continued, the score came across: 14.875. A monster, the highest on bars over two nights at the United States Olympic trials at Target Center. And even though it happened early Sunday night, it felt like a coronation moment in Lee’s return to the highest level of competition.

The St. Paul native is going back to the Olympics, joining Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Hezly Rivera on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the Paris Games.

“I was just reminded of my goals every day and constantly surrounded by people who never let me give up,” Lee told the crowd. “I am so thankful because a year ago I didn’t even think this was …” And then she began crying as fans cheered her name.

Making Team USA for the Paris Games capped a physical and mental odyssey stretching back more than a year to when Lee announced she was dealing with serious kidney ailments. One of the kidney diseases is incurable and the situation was so dire it prematurely ended her college career at Auburn. Her doctors told her she might never compete again.

With the pressure of these trials in her home state, she competed with aplomb to make her second Olympic roster.

“I can’t wait to get to Paris!” Lee screamed.

Biles, Lee, Chiles and Carey participated in the Tokyo Olympics, and form an unusual team of mostly 20-something gymnasts. Rivera, a 16-year-old from New Jersey, is the youngest member of Team USA going to Paris. The two replacement athletes who will travel with the team are Joscelyn Roberson and Leanne Wong.

The group will look to get the United States back atop the podium after finishing second to the Russian Olympic Committee in Tokyo after Biles had to pull out of the competition. The U.S. women’s team won gold in 2012 and 2016.

“I know we’re stronger than what we showed in Tokyo and so I think it has to be for us because it can’t be for anybody else,” Biles said. “That’s not why we do it. We do it for ourselves and for the love of the sport and the love for representing the U.S.”

Biles was utterly captivating over the trials. Her thrilling execution on vault and floor were met with raucous disbelief as she converted some of the most technically difficult routines the sport has ever seen.

She won the all-around with a score of 117.225 while posting the highest score on vault and floor. Lee finished second at 111.675, grabbing the top score on bars. Chiles was right behind Lee in third in the all-around (111.425) while Carey finished fourth (111.350) and Rivera fifth (111.150), after tying for the top score on beam.

Biles, 27, will head to Paris at the height of her powers after she dealt with “the twisties” during the Tokyo Olympics and had to remove herself from the bulk of competition.

“I wasn’t done after the performances in Tokyo,” Biles said. “Getting back in the gym and working hard and trusting the process and staying on the grind, I knew I’d be back.”

Lee’s return was just as tenuous, even as the defending all-around Olympic gold medal winner. She added a bronze medal on the uneven bars and a team silver in Tokyo to launch a meteoric rise into the national consciousness.

Her accomplishments this weekend were no less incredible.

“I did struggle for her knowing that she was having to battle your own mental health, never mind the gymnastics, which is hard on its own,” said Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the strategic lead for the U.S. national team. “I never try to count anybody out, because you never know what can happen, but I know it’s been a hard journey.”

These trials were shrouded with injuries as Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello suffered ruptured Achilles tendons and had to withdraw from competition. Shilese Jones injured her knee on vault in warmups Friday and did not compete on Sunday, either. All three were considered strong contenders for the Olympic team.

Still, those difficult moments did not detract from the final night of Olympic trials. It was a celebratory moment for Minneapolis, capping nine days of events across multiple venues with thousands of athletes competing and hundreds of thousands more in attendance. It was the largest event ever put on by USA Gymnastics.

“It was insane,” Lee said of the trials being at home. “I’m so grateful for the love and the support that this city has given me.”

Lee’s final rotation was on the vault. She sprinted down the runway and set herself airborne, landing with the tiniest of hops back. The crowd roared and kept roaring as she descended the steps and turned to wave.

The official news would have to wait, but everyone in the building already knew that the star from St. Paul was heading back to the world’s biggest stage.

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