Olympics-Lee's performance at U.S. Championships lifted by Biles pep talk


FILE PHOTO: Jun 2, 2024; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Sunisa Lee of Midwest Gymnastics Center performs on floor exercise during day two of the women’s 2024 Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

(Reuters) - Sunisa Lee thought her chances of making the U.S. team for the Paris Olympics had crumbled after an awful vault at the national championships earlier this month but some words of encouragement from team mate Simone Biles helped to turn her meet around.

Since winning gold in the all-around at the Tokyo Olympics Lee has spent time sidelined with kidney illnesses and needed a strong performance at the pressure packed competition to stay in the running for the five-person Paris squad.

On the first rotation of the final day, Lee got slightly wrongfooted on her run toward the apparatus, abandoned her planned double twist and landed on her back.

"After my vault, I kind of just walked away," Lee told Reuters. "I really thought, this is going to be the end of my elite career."

Enter Biles, who took it upon herself to seek out and comfort Lee backstage at the arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

"I was in the tunnel kind of having a breakdown, telling myself to get it together and Simone came running over and asked me if I was doing okay," she said.

"She understood everything that I was going through, and basically told me to just remember my keywords, to go out there and do my thing and not focus on anything else."

Lee asked Biles to stand nearby to offer support during her uneven bars routine and the four-times Olympic champion could be heard urging the 21-year-old on during the June 2 broadcast.

Growing in confidence, Lee was aggressive on balance beam, one of her best events, and finished the competition in fourth place, greatly improving her chance of punching a ticket to Paris. The team will be named after this month's Olympic Trials.

Biles battled a case of the "twisties" - a mental block where gymnasts are disoriented in midair - three years ago in Tokyo and used that experience to help open up a wider conversation about mental health.

She took a two-year break from the sport but since returning has been as dominant as ever, including winning the U.S. Championships for a record-extending ninth time.

"She understands more than anyone the pressure and has had to deal with the worst, so it really helped to have her in my corner," Lee said.

In addition to her recent kidney ailments, Lee has long suffered from the skin condition eczema and has partnered with Eli Lilly to raise awareness of it.

"When I was growing up I didn't have a lot of people talking about their eczema and I would just sit with that insecurity, not wanting to go out and compete because in a leotard our skin is very exposed," she said.

"That's why this partnership has been so amazing because it has helped me really embrace it and try to help the younger generations feel more comfortable with it."

(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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