"I'm surprised I didn't get more emotional," she said. "It has been such a long recovery process. It almost feels surreal to be back."
After earning first-team All-American honors on vault and floor and second-team honors on the balance beam as a freshman, Lee was expected to be one of the leaders for the Utes in 2016, particularly on the balance beam, where the Utes lacked experienced depth. Lee instead missed the final 10 meets of the season after tearing the tendon in practice.
Recovering from the injury is considered one of the hardest challenges for a gymnast because there is so much force demanded of the area, particularly when punching off the floor. Luckily for the Utes and Lee, her recovery has gone about as smooth as could have hoped. The only event in which she isn't ready yet is floor, and she is making progress there.
The injury, and the time spent recovering, has made Lee appreciate her sport even more.
"I can't believe I am back after almost a year," she said. "It just feels awesome."
Lee's return feels awesome to the Utes as well, who view the Peoria, Ariz., native as a key performer on all events, but particularly the balance beam.
"She is a beamer," Utah coach Megan Marsden said. "With her, most beam routines are a walk through. She is a natural on it."
The balance beam doomed the Utes at nationals last year, which dropped them to ninth overall. Lee knows the team is depending on her skills to help this season, and she is ready to deliver.
"It's definitely one of my specialties," she said. "But we have a strong beam team after working on it. I know I can count on the team, and hopefully they know they can count on me."
What helps Lee with the pressure is her demeanor. Marsden said Lee always takes a comfortable approach and doesn't give in to drama.
"She is so low maintenance," Marsden said. "She knows how to put herself in competition mode. You just see her at the beginning of the night, and you never have to second guess if she is off or ready to roll."
Lee has a light, elegant way of moving that judges love.
"She floats through her routines," Marsden said. "She is clean and consistent, and judges like her effortless way of moving. We missed that last year."
Because she missed so much of last season, Lee had the option of an extra year. She opted to take it, even though a lot of gymnasts have a hard time competing four years at the collegiate level, much less doing so after a major injury.
But Lee is happier than ever with the decision because her recovery went so well and she believes she has three more good years in herself to give the Utes.
"I love this team and coaching staff so much, I didn't want to miss it," she said.
They certainly missed her.
About Kari Lee
Year • Sophomore
Height • 5 foot 1
Hometown • Peoria, Ariz.
Of note • NCAA finalist on vault and floor as a freshman. ... Three-time All-Pac 12 Conference. ... 8 career victories. ... Has hit 50 of 54 routines. ... Dual major in business and communication.
Utah at BYU
P At Marriott Center, Provo
Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • BYUtv