Behind every elite athlete is a devoted coach. For Sunisa Lee, Jess Graba is that coach.
Graba, who has coached many elite gymnasts, saw a spark in Lee when she was just 6 years old. Ten years later, she’s on track for the 2020 Olympics.
“First time I saw her, I saw that she was good,” Graba said.
She stood out amongst other gymnasts as being extremely talented, working hard, having a good attitude about failure and not being afraid to try again. Preparing for failure is especially important in gymnastics.
“She has a lot of talent,” Graba said. “That combined with a really good attitude. She works really hard. It’s really hard to find someone that works extremely hard and can take a lot of failure and has enough talent to compete at that level.”
“A lot of times you fail. At least in our sport we’re failing 95 percent of the time,” said Graba, a former gymnast who opened Midwest Gymnastics in 1995.
Gymnasts often spend hours attempting to perfect one specific skill. People watching on TV are wowed by the sheer skill and the talent they possess, but behind the scenes it takes patience, perseverance and commitment to master such feats.
Gymnastics quickly took over Lee’s life, and she continued to succeed as she climbed to the top.
“He’s really motivating and he helps me get through a lot of stuff,” Lee said. “We argue over gymnastics.”
Graba and Lee travel extensively all over the world and will possibly travel to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
It would be a first for both, but it is not their main focus.
Graba works hard to instill that learning the skills is more important than winning the competition to keep Lee on an even keel.
“We don’t try to celebrate too much because it’s not about the victory all the time,” Graba said. “A lot of times it’s about the process. It’s about the daily grind.”
Graba, while highlighting the importance of mastering the skills, allows Lee to express herself in her routine. Individuality is important for teenagers and especially athletes.
“We try to give her as much freedom as we can,” Graba said. “What she wants to do with her expression, what she wants to do with her routines and that sort of stuff so that she has a lot of ownership of it.”
Minnesota, although not historically known for its elite gymnasts, has progressed within the past few years.
Last year, the national team featured two gymnasts from Minnesota, which is impressive for a team with only 12 girls.
Lee is competing for the chance of a lifetime that few gymnasts achieve. She competed in the U.S. Championships Aug. 8 – 11. She placed 2nd All Around and is continuing her journey toward the Olympics. Win or lose, Graba will always be by her side.