Suni Lee put one question to rest last week. The Auburn gymnast, who won the Olympic gold medal in the all-around before starting her college career, announced she will leave the Tigers after this season so she can pursue a spot on the 2024 Olympic team.
That declaration, however, opened up a whole new batch of questions. The St. Paul native became the first Olympic all-around champion to compete in NCAA gymnastics following her three-medal performance at the Tokyo Games in 2021. Now, she hopes to return to the Olympics after competing in college — a task with no precedent, and no clear formula to get there.
"It's like you're trying to build the airplane as you're flying it,'' Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. "How do we do this? That's the million-dollar question.''
Graba and his twin brother, Jess, who shepherded Lee from tiny prodigy to Olympic champion, will be charting Lee's path toward the Paris Games. Her sophomore season at Auburn begins in January. Once it ends, Lee, 19, will dive right back into elite-level training at Midwest Gymnastics Center in Little Canada, with the goal of making the U.S. team for the world championships next fall.
For her to thrive in both realms, the Grabas will have to carefully manage Lee's routines and health. A handful of gymnasts — including Lee's Tokyo Olympic teammates Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles — made this year's world championships team after their initial college seasons, showing what is possible.
While it's exciting to be setting a new course for women's gymnastics, Lee and her coaches are feeling some pressure, too.
"I like the challenge,'' Jess Graba said. "But it's stressful. This has not been done before. And Suni is the [Olympic all-around] gold medalist, so the pressure is a touch higher.
"Our focus now is on making sure she has a really good NCAA season. It will be a tricky thing for all of us, to train in a way that sets Suni up for success right after the [college] season. But we're super excited.''
The Grabas anticipate Lee's NCAA routines will be hybrids, blending college-level skills with some of the more difficult elements necessary to succeed in the elite ranks. Jeff Graba acknowledged there's some risk involved with that approach. In NCAA competition, hitting error-free routines carries more reward than attempting the hardest possible skills.
But Graba said it will allow Lee to refine her elite-level elements under pressure. She employed this strategy to good effect last year, sometimes using Olympic routines on her way to multiple All-America honors. Lee won the NCAA title on balance beam and was second in the all-around, and she won the SEC uneven bars title with a perfect 10.0 score.
"We might be throwing slightly harder routines than necessary because we can't just go for the score and simplify,'' Jeff Graba said. "If we did that, she wouldn't necessarily be ready when the season ends to jump right into a run for the world championships team.
"It's been excruciatingly difficult to work this system and try to do the best for both worlds. But it's worth it.''
Busy 2023 ahead
Last summer, Lee returned to Midwest Gymnastics to train with Jess Graba and his wife, Alison Lim. The coaches will take turns traveling to Auburn to work with Lee this winter, doing as much extra training as possible to prepare her for a quick transition back to the elite level.
Auburn will compete in about 15 meets this season, aiming toward the NCAA championships April 13-15. Jess Graba expects Lee to return to elite competition at the U.S. Classic in early August, followed by the U.S. championships later that month.
Her college competition schedule hasn't been determined. But Jeff Graba said Lee isn't likely to contest the all-around in every meet, in order to manage the wear and tear of a long season.
Jess Graba said making the team for next year's world championships is a critical step towards the Paris Olympics. His brother took note of the strategy Chiles (UCLA) and Carey (Oregon State) used in their transitions from NCAA meets to the world championships this year, though he said Lee's status as the Olympic all-around champ makes her situation unique.
That gold medal adds some extra weight to Lee's pursuit. It's a heavy load, the Grabas agreed, but one that can be borne if they all lift together.
"This can work,'' Jeff Graba said. "There's a lot of give and take. But if we're all on the same page and put the athlete first, I think we're in good shape.''