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‘A lot of pressure’: Inside Auburn signee Sunisa Lee’s preparation at the Tokyo Olympics
AU Gymnastics

‘A lot of pressure’: Inside Auburn signee Sunisa Lee’s preparation at the Tokyo Olympics

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US Gymnastics Olympic Trials

Auburn gymnastics signee Sunisa Lee competes in the floor exercise during the women’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials on June 25 in St. Louis.

Sunisa Lee finally gets her way in Tokyo.

She finally gets to throw the skills she’s been determined to throw. And her coach will be relieved to just get out of her way, Jeff Graba laughed.

Lee is at the pinnacle now, and there’s no reason to hold anything back. She certainly doesn’t plan on it.

As Friday’s opening ceremonies draw closer and closer, the Auburn gymnastics signee is getting set for the opportunity of a lifetime by preparing to make the most of it — like by upgrading to the four-pass floor routine that she’s been so anxious to show the world.

“Her and my brother weren’t necessarily seeing eye-to-eye on the three-pass floor routine for the last four meets,” Graba laughed.

“She finally gets her way. So I’m sure my brother is breathing a sigh of relief because he doesn’t have to deal with an angry Suni.”

He was half-joking, but that’s a look inside some of the fine-tuning being done this week at practices on the other side of the world, as competition creeps closer at the Olympic Games.

Jeff Graba is Auburn’s head coach. Lee’s club coach is his twin brother Jess Graba. The brothers have been texting or jumping on FaceTime typically on what’s Jess’s night over in Tokyo and Jeff’s morning here stateside in Auburn.

No matter the time zone, it’s probably tough for either of them to get a ton of sleep this week. Competition begins for Lee on Sunday when Team USA enters the qualification round when it’ll be mid-afternoon in Tokyo but 1:10 a.m. early Sunday morning on Central Time.

It’s been a long road. Lee injured her foot last summer, which is why Jess has kept her from throwing her best stuff on floor in the lead-up to the Olympics. It was a calculated decision. In the end, she didn’t need it: The three-pass routine she threw on floor was enough to help her earn one of the automatic spots on the U.S. national team at the U.S. Team Trails last month in St. Louis.

Adding the extra tumble makes for higher scoring potential, but creates more margin for error and, in Lee’s case, more opportunity to re-aggravate that foot injury.

But it’s only natural that Lee would never want to hold anything back, because she’s a competitor.

For her coaches helping her through her final preparations on meet week, Jeff Graba said it’s all about finding the balance to put her in the best position possible.

“There’s a lot of pressure, and she’s a competitive, driven individual, so she gets better with some pressure,” he explained at the McWhorter Center this week in Auburn.

“You need that adrenaline edge to get you through. But you can’t go over the edge and have too much adrenaline or let the anxiety get to you.”

It’s a fine line, he said. But Jeff’s been a part of trips like this in the past. When he was an assistant coach at Utah, he coached then-Utah junior Daria Bijak when she made Germany’s national team and competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Lee has earned her spot in Tokyo and it’s all just gymnastics from here. She placed second at the team trials behind only Simone Biles, and joined Biles as the only two gymnasts to earn automatic placing on the U.S. national team. She won bars at the trials and enters as Team USA’s best chance to win gold on bars in the event finals. First is the team finals, but all of it runs through Sunday’s qualification round.

Team USA shouldn’t have a problem qualifying for team finals that day, but the U.S. gymnasts will be competing with each other because no more than two gymnasts from each nation can compete in each discipline in the individual event finals. Only the top two scorers from the qualifying round will compete for the U.S. in the individual finals for all-around, bars, beam, vault and floor.

The team finals are set for July 27 at 5:45 a.m. Central Time. Then the women’s individual all-around runs July 29 at 5:50 a.m. Central before event finals run Aug. 1-3.

“It’s one skill at a time,” Jeff Graba said. “Gymnasts are driven by other things. They’re not result-oriented. I think that’s possibly because the judges are always in charge of the results, so they’re used to not having any say in that. Her intent is to throw the big routine. She wants to do her best with her biggest stuff, so she’s going to want that huge bar set.

“That’s how she’s going to gauge success,” he went on. “Does she go out there and throw what she’s capable of throwing at a high level? And then I think she believes — and so does my brother — that if she does that it’ll be a pretty good result.”


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