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A spirit that is not afraid

Suni's gold brightens future of AU gymnastics

Sunisa Lee first verbally committed to Auburn when she was 14.
Sunisa Lee first verbally committed to Auburn when she was 14.

Following Sunisa Lee’s gold medal victory in the individual all-around at the Tokyo Olympics, Auburn head coach Jeff Graba is excited for the future. Lee’s victory came with a total score of 57.928, continuing the U.S. women’s all-around win streak going back to 2004.

Lee is currently coached through Midwest Gymnastics by Jess Graba, twin brother to Jeff, who will coach Lee when she arrives to The Plains this fall. 

Lee became the face of the individual competition when her teammate and defending champion Simone Biles withdrew from the competition citing mental health concerns. 

“We were preparing for her to win a medal this whole time, and we thought she had a shot at the gold,” Jeff Graba said. “I would say she felt more pressure. All the eyes are on her now, and she’s carrying the hopes and dreams of USA Gymnastics to try to do something, to try to keep the streak going.”

USA Gymnastics struggled in qualifying, having to fight off the encroaching Russian team, which became the focus in crafting Lee's floor routine to maximize her potential points. Without Biles competing, Lee needed to capitalize on the opportunity to win gold.

“She had a three-pass floor routine. I help [Jess] do his math. This was his thing. He knows this code of points. He knows his athlete,” Jeff Graba said. “The rumor is — and now it’s true — is that she hadn’t really done floor in two days. What she was doing was reworking her floor routine into a three-pass floor routine. We were trying to squeeze an extra tenth out of floor.”

After the Olympics, the high-profile athlete will settle into a small college town in East Alabama. Graba confirmed that Lee is enrolled for the fall 2021 semester. 

“She’s currently enrolled. She still has to get on campus and go through all the other stuff. She’s been busy,” Jeff Graba said, laughing. 

Her success is an opportunity to bring national attention to Auburn's program.

“Obviously it’s a big deal," Jeff Graba said. "One of the best athletes in the world, not just gymnasts in the world, but one of the best athletes in the world, has chosen to come to Auburn. I take it as a big deal that she was coached by my brother and chose to be coached by me for the next four years.”

Graba also spoke on the impact that the NCAA's changes to its name, image and likeness policy has had on planning Lee’s college career. Gymnasts of such international caliber had previously been limited to taking endorsements to monetize their success only if they chose to forego competing in college, but things are changing. Gymnasts now have an opportunity to pursue a degree while still profiting off their image and maintaining an athletic career. 

The new NIL rules allow Lee to expand her career far beyond what it could have been before. The possibilities for the future are wide open, but the current focus is on enjoying what has been achieved thus far.

“It’s an exciting day for Auburn gymnastics, for Suni Lee, for Midwestern Gymnastics,” Graba said, “and obviously for my brother and my family.”

Lee has two individual events remaining in her trip to Tokyo: the bars final and the beam final. The bars final will broadcast live on Sunday, Aug. 1 at  5:27 a.m. CST, according to The beam final broadcast is set to begin Tuesday, Aug. 3 at 3:48 a.m. CST.

Callie Stanford | Sports Writer

Callie Stanford is from Springville, Alabama and is currently a sophomore at Auburn. She has been with The Plainsman since January 2021.

Twitter: @Stanford1Callie

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