Olympic champ Sunisa Lee struggles in return; Kayla DiCello stars at Winter Cup

Olympic champ Sunisa Lee struggles in return; Kayla DiCello stars at Winter Cup

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Not long after Sunisa Lee reached the pinnacle of women’s gymnastics, she decided she wanted more.

Lee’s status as the reigning Olympic all-around champion made her one of the nation’s top contenders for the 2024 Paris Games, even before she returned to elite competition in 2023. But then serious health trouble threatened to derail it all.

The symptoms of a kidney-related issue significantly limited Lee’s training last year, and she struggled mentally while navigating the uncertainty. Lee performed on just two apparatuses at competitions in 2023, and she opted out of the selection process for the world championships team.

Ahead of her 2024 competitive debut, with just four months until the Olympic trials, Lee told reporters her health has improved and the kidney issue is “pretty much under control for now.” But after a strong day of training, Lee struggled through her much-anticipated performance at the Winter Cup on Saturday in Louisville. Lee, the only Olympian in the field, attempted an innovative element on bars but fell, and she faltered during a beam routine that didn’t include her full repertoire of difficult skills.

With the elite season not ramping up until May, some top gymnasts skip this competition altogether; others, such as Lee, perform on select events. Meanwhile, Kayla DiCello, a 20-year-old from Boyds, Md., won the all-around gold medal with excellent performances on all four apparatuses, showcasing consistency that some of the other top athletes lacked. DiCello’s 56.850 all-around score was more than two points ahead of runner-up Skye Blakely (54.650). DiCello also won on bars and floor.

DiCello missed out on a spot on the 2023 world championships team; she was named the alternate instead. Now she has begun an Olympic year with proof she is firmly in the mix for Paris. Her score at this early-season meet was more than two points better than her top mark from last season (54.699). Just two Americans — Simone Biles and Shilese Jones — notched at least a 56.000 in the all-around in 2023.

At the Winter Cup, DiCello earned at least a 14.050 on each apparatus — scores the United States probably would be content to rely on in Paris. DiCello, an alternate for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, doesn’t have one spectacular event, but her well-rounded skills could be an asset to the U.S. team.

The path to Paris will be difficult: There are three Olympic all-around champions attempting to make the five-member U.S. team. Lee has the potential to be much better than what she showed Saturday. Biles is nearly guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team if she’s healthy, and 2012 gold medalist Gabby Douglas is also vying for a trip to Paris. Douglas intended to compete in Louisville — which would have been her first meet since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics — but she tested positive for the coronavirus and had to withdraw.

The field of U.S. gymnasts is deep, particularly with a growing number of standouts competing into their 20s. Beyond Biles, several top contenders didn’t attend the Winter Cup: Jones, who last year was the country’s second-best all-around gymnast; Olympic floor champion Jade Carey; Tokyo Olympian Jordan Chiles, who withdrew from this meet because of a shoulder injury; and others who have been on world championships teams.

Here’s what else to know about the Winter Cup:

Lee’s routine on bars was expected to be the highlight of the competition. She has long had complicated routines on her signature event, and this time she added a new skill that could soon bear her name if she performs it successfully at an international meet. The release element, which no other woman has done in elite competition, features a front flip with a full twist before she re-grasps the high bar. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and Lee couldn’t hold on to the bar Saturday. She performed the skill with superb execution during Friday’s training session.

As Lee dealt with her health issue, she told reporters she had worried she “wasn’t going to be good enough to make it to the Olympics.” So she invested effort into perfecting this new skill — a goal that felt attainable.

Based on performances at the Winter Cup, USA Gymnastics will select athletes to compete at international competitions over the next few months. Lee has said she hopes to perform in Baku, Azerbaijan, and if she catches this release element there, it would become known as the Lee in women’s gymnastics.

Blakely, a two-time world championships team member, and Hezly Rivera, 15, tied for the title on beam after each scored a 14.500. For Blakely, the routine was a chance to show she could perform well under pressure after struggling on the apparatus at last year’s world championships. And for Rivera, the strong outing proved her potential as she competed in the senior division for the first time.

Blakely and Rivera fell on bars, which hurt their overall totals, but they still landed on the all-around medal podium. Rivera finished third.

Trinity Thomas had one of the most successful NCAA careers in history, tying a record with 28 perfect 10s. Rather than giving up the sport after exhausting her collegiate eligibility, she chose to return to the elite level, balancing training with her role as a student assistant coach at Florida.

Until Saturday, Thomas hadn’t participated in an elite competition since 2019, but in her return, she impressed. Thomas posted the fourth-best all-around score and won the silver medal on bars.

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