About a month after Lee woke up with a body that didn’t feel like her own, her doctors shut her down from training and competing, and on April 3, Lee announced she was ending her sophomore season early due to a “non-gymnastics health-related issue involving my kidneys.”
The kidneys, the two bean-shaped organs located below your rib cage on both sides of your spine, are each made up of roughly a million nephrons—microscopic tubes with mini filters that are critical for keeping the body’s fluid and mineral content balanced and blood pressure controlled. Blood flows into a cluster of tiny blood vessels called the glomerulus, which removes waste and excess water from the blood. Those filtered substances then become urine.
With a condition like Lee’s, the kidney tissue can eventually show signs of injury and scarring. “When scarring [on the kidneys] occurs, it tends to become a bit of a vicious cycle,” Debbie Gipson, MD, the program director in the Division of Kidney, Urologic, and Hematologic Diseases at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, tells SELF. “The body is reacting to that injury and injury begets injury.” As the kidneys’ filters become inflamed or damaged, it becomes harder for the organs to clear waste and excess fluid from the body, Dr. Gipson, who isn’t treating Lee, explains. When that happens, blood and protein can leak into urine, and symptoms like swelling and fatigue can manifest.
Lee has shared the name of her current diagnosis with SELF off the record, but her medical team believes it may change as they continue to understand what’s going on inside her body, so she is keeping it private for now. While more than one in seven people may develop chronic kidney disease in their lifetime, Lee’s condition isn’t common, and there is no cure yet. Treatment typically involves a medication regimen to help manage symptoms, but Lee’s care plan is a work in progress.
As an elite athlete, Lee’s body is her instrument. There’s an intimacy and awareness borne from years spent testing her limits and becoming extremely familiar with every nook and cranny, every strength and weakness. Now, overnight, her body felt completely foreign. She was supposed to be getting ready for the postseason. She was supposed to be celebrating her final collegiate season. She was about to turn 20. Instead, she wondered, What’s wrong with me?
While Lee says it feels good to have a better idea of what’s going on with her health, to know that there could be a path to getting better, a diagnosis also solidifies that something is wrong. It was a heartbreaking and confusing realization that left Lee in denial: “How do I just randomly wake up one day swollen, and now I’m stuck with this condition for the rest of my life?”
For an athlete, it can feel like you’re only as good as your last result, and Lee has talked about her struggles with imposter syndrome. Last year she told ESPN that it’s been hard to live up to the gold-medal standard, saying, “There’s just been so much doubt in like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have won [the] Olympics, blah, blah, blah,’ and it really hits my soul.” It’s part of why competing in Paris next summer means so much to her: It’s a chance to prove that her success wasn’t a fluke. Lee wants to win gold in her signature event, the uneven bars, and in the team event. Repeating as all-around champion? “That would be amazing,” she says.
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