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Olympic gymnast Suni Lee reveals her eczema journey, tells others: "You are not alone"

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Olympic gymnastics all-around champion Suni Lee is opening up about her longtime journey with eczema, an inflammatory skin condition also known as atopic dermatitis.

Lee, 21, shared she was first diagnosed at a young age.

"My skin was always super dry, super flaky. It was really uncomfortable because it was really itchy," she said, speaking at a panel in partnership with Eli Lilly and Company, pharmaceutical company and health equity sponsor of Team USA. "But my mom ended up taking me to the doctor and my doctor sent me to a dermatologist, and that's when we got my diagnosis and we found the right treatment plan."

She admitted when she was younger she was embarrassed by it, because "nobody ever talked about it."

Now, she's hoping to be the role model she could have used in her youth.

"It can be kind of isolating when you deal with eczema and having an eczema flare-up, so I just want people to know that you are not alone and it does not define you," she said. "When you deal with it and you're constantly looking down at your skin, you probably think, 'Oh, other people are looking at it and staring at it.' But in reality, I don't really think anyone's looking that hard."

This isn't the first health challenge Lee has spoken about publicly. Last year she revealed she was recovering from a debilitating kidney condition. In a brief update, she shared with CBS News she's "doing a lot better," adding she's "so happy" to be heading to Olympic trials.

"I have had to deal with so much the past two years. Just feel so good to know that I can be back out there, not even at my best, and I can still be able to perform," she said. "I'm so excited."

During her first Olympic run at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Lee won the individual all-around champion title at 18 years old, making her the first Asian American woman to win the title.

With sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics, she medaled at the U.S. Classic last month, a key qualifying event for this year's Games before putting on elegant routines on uneven bars and balance beam at the U.S. Championships earlier this month. 

Next up is Olympic trials, which will officially determine who will take one of the five women's spots on Team USA. The trials are set to take place later this month in Minneapolis, where Lee grew up.

"I get to compete in front of a hometown crowd, and all my friends and my family are gonna be there so it's going to be a good one," she told CBS News. 

The physical and mental impact of eczema

Childhood onset is common for eczema, said dermatologist Dr. Alexandra Golant, who was also part of the panel. She said Lee's experience is similar to that of many with the condition. 

"Oftentimes there's a skin component — that can be redness, that can be flaking of the skin, that can be skin discomfort, and it's almost always accompanied by a really relentless itch that these patients suffer from," Golant said on the panel. It can even cause skin lesions from getting stuck in what's called a "scratch-itch cycle," she said.

And the condition is more than skin deep — there's also a psychological component. 

Even during periods of relatively clear skin, for many patients there's often "anticipatory anxiety around when the next flare will come," Golant says — something Lee says she's experienced herself.  

"Eczema flare ups, they can definitely get in my head," Lee said during the panel. "Being on a competition floor, having so many eyes on you and just trying not to be worried about if people are looking at my skin or like itching myself because the more that I itch myself, the flakier it's going to get, the drier it's going to get."

In an interview with CBS News, Lee shared she was able to flip from feeling insecure to confident in her own skin by realizing "everybody has something going on." 

"I do have to be out there in a leotard where my skin is fully exposed and everyone can see it, and the insecurity I feel like was just holding me back," she said. "So the more I started to embrace it ... and just went out there and competed with it, I was fine. And knowing that I had the support and the help that I needed from the right health care provider and dermatologists helped me as well."

Lee is not currently taking a Lilly medicine, but the company has launched a resource page in partnership with her to help those seeking resources on eczema. 

Stress and eczema

Anxiety and stress are common triggers for eczema flares.

For Lee, stress is "a daily thing that I have to battle," she told CBS News, but adds it "definitely starts to pick up when I have to perform."

So how does the Olympian stay calm? Journaling and therapy, she shared.

"I do a lot of journaling," she shared. "I write how I feel a lot because I'm a very private and quiet person. So whenever it comes to my feelings, I keep it all in until I just burst. To keep that under control, I like to journal and get out everything I feel. I also go to therapy a lot, where I can just say how I feel and just work through all of the mental challenges that I have to go through."

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