The Graba Twins' Coaching Philosophy: Athlete Empowerment & Code of Points
The Graba Twins' Coaching Philosophy: Athlete Empowerment & Code of Points
A conversation with Jess and Jeff Graba about coaching Sunisa Lee, teaching the Code of Points, athlete empowerment, and more.
After Sunisa Lee won the Tokyo Olympic All-Around gold medal, people started talking about Jess Graba, one of her two elite coaches at Midwest Gymnastics, alongside Alison Lim. As Lee transitions to NCAA gymnastics at Auburn, people are now talking about Jeff Graba, Jess’s twin brother, and the Head Coach at Auburn University.
Jess and Jeff Graba first found the sport of gymnastics around fifth or sixth grade, after their wrestling coach suggested they take dance, tumbling, or gymnastics lessons to work on their footwork, flexibility, and strength. After training in both sports for years, they decided that junior year of high school to switch over to gymnastics only, as college was approaching.
To make ends meet, they turned to coaching gymnastics as early as thirteen. They continued coaching while in college to pay for tuition, working multiple positions coaching high school gymnastics along with Jess managing Shoreview Gymnastics and Jeff managing Flips Gymnastics in Minneapolis.
Though their early years of coaching came from necessity, it quickly blossomed into a legitimate career, as the sport was in need of coaches who could hand spot well. After graduating college in 1993, they entered jobs and internships unrelated to gymnastics, and quickly realized those careers weren’t for them. Jess went to Jeff a year post-college and suggested opening Midwest Gymnastics, which they did in 1995, hosting around 60 kids in a 6,000 square foot building. Both were still working other coaching jobs on the side to make rent - Jess at Mahtomedi high school in the Twin Cities area and Jeff at Hamline University as an assistant coach.
In 2003, Jeff married into a family with three older children and had a new baby of his own. He decided to switch to coaching college gymnastics, which would help offset the cost of tuition when the older children went to college and would give him more regular hours to work and spend time with his family.
At the same time, Midwest Gymnastics was expanding to the point where they would have to open up another site, or one coach would have to go someplace else, so Jeff leaving to coach college made the most sense. Jeff coached as an assistant coach at Utah State for two years and at Utah for five years before moving to Auburn for the head coaching position in 2010, where he has been ever since. Jess runs Midwest Gymnastics alongside his wife, Alison Lim. I sat down with Jess and Jeff Graba to discuss coaching Sunisa Lee, teaching the “Rubik’s Cube” Code of Points, and managing a superstar at the height of media attention since her gold medal performance.
*Parts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Miranda Martin: Jess, how long have you coached Suni?
Jess Graba: She started gymnastics in my club. When she started, I think she was six, almost turning seven. That was about 12 years ago.
MM: When did you first come to meet her or notice her?
Jess Graba: When she tried out. She was trying out our gym. Her aunt was a friend of one of my compulsory coaches and had noticed that she had some talent and wanted her to try out a real gym instead of playing around in the yard. When she walked in, of course, I talked to them. Puner was my compulsory coach - still is my compulsory coach. Then I saw her when she walked in, went and met her. Whoever came in, I think there was the family and then the aunt was there. She did her tryout with Puner and I could tell right away that she was going to be talented. I told Puner to put her in our fast track program and put her on the team right away.
MM: One thing that people have noticed after watching the documentary Golden is that you're frequently seen reworking Suni's and other gymnasts on your team's routines to see what you can get for a higher start value within the Code of Points. Can you just talk a little bit about how important knowing the Code of Points is and how you got into working with it?
Jess Graba: Well, I always tell my athletes and Suni knows this. We've talked about this a lot. It's her job to communicate with me what's working, what's not working. What feels good. What doesn't feel good. What she likes, what she doesn't like. I feel like if she likes things, she will put more effort in and she'll show them off better. If there's other ways to solve the same Rubik's cube, we want to try and find the easiest way to get the highest score. Sometimes that's a lower start value. Sometimes it's higher. The code really is important to know. That's her job. My job is always, I've always told her, "My job is to make sure that if we're going to do a road trip from here to San Diego, my job is to find the shortest, easiest path to get to San Diego." Her job is to just keep the thing rolling.
Jess Graba: My job was always to have a backup plan. A lot of times when I'm reworking the routines, I'm judging the routine like in the Golden episodes, we had settled on several routines that we thought were possible in my head. I was judging the routines to see what my most consistent three-tenth deductions were. If I could replace one of those Ds that was getting a consistent three with a D that would get a consistent one, that's what I was looking for. Then the other thing was, she was injured and she was injured all the way through the Olympics. My other point of doing that was a lot of times I was reworking routines so that I had a backup plan in case she...like normally she does a roundoff double tuck dismount. We went with a double full because I knew that we needed a tumble and vault to make the team. I didn't want to take extra landings on her leg when...if I did the handspring, handspring double full, it was a two-tenth bonus. I get one back and if she did the roundoff double, I got one back. It was an equal swap. It wasn't so much that it was going to score better, but it was that I took a pounding off of her leg on one event, which is what I was trying to do.
MM: You talk about how it's your job to know the code, but at the Olympics, we also saw that Suni has some knowledge of the code as well.
Jess Graba: Absolutely. Yep. I'm not the coach and she's the athlete, we're a team. It's myself, and Ali, and Suni. We've done everything. The three of us have done everything together. It's Suni's journey. She needs to be a hundred percent invested. I tell her, "If you do this," because she'll come with an idea on bars and I'll be like, "That's a great idea, but if we do that, we have to take this out. In order to get the routine to work, is that a trade-off we're willing to make? And then we need to talk about it." I'm not going to tell her. If she thinks it's a good idea, and she's invested in it and I can't find a bad idea then. I mean, she's got the most important information because she's doing it. She's also super smart. She knows the code and she's been trained to think for herself. I mean, I want her thinking so if she messes up something, she knows to pull it. Like the double squat turn on beam. We've talked about that several times when she was younger. I never let her pull it because we needed more reps on the second squat turn, but as we got into bigger meets then I wanted her to make a smart move and said, "It's up to you. If you feel like you're off, don't do it because it's only worth one tenth back and you could give three away. Let's not do it."
Jess Graba: She needs to know the code super well and be able to train it like in the gym. In our gym, we always trained if she hit any of her three or four bar routines that she was capable of hitting, I counted it as a hit because the goal is to stay on the equipment. Not to hit the 6.8 every time. I mean, wonderful if you can, but if we tried to hit the 6.8 five times a day or three times a day, we'd be there for a week. It's really important that Suni learns how to manage the code as well. Every athlete I feel needs to.
Jeff Graba: That goes back to our philosophy. That's always been our philosophy. We weren't the best gymnasts, but we knew what we could do and our coaches listened to us. I remember when we opened up our gym, our mission, we had told ourselves every week, "We're going to do this differently than some of the other gyms that are out there. Our athletes are going to be invested with us. It's going to be a team sport." It's not a shock to me that Suni makes a lot of critical decisions on her own. She's been educated on how to do that by Ali and Jess, but she's got the most important information. When she's the one who can make decisions on the fly now that are really high-quality decisions, but it's been a ten-year investment.
Jess Graba: I remember I used to be told by coaches when we were at developmental camp, they'd get frustrated with me because they'd say, "Why do you keep asking her questions? Why do you keep saying, what do you want to do next? You're supposed to be the coach. You need to tell her what to do." I said, "Well, that's not the way I do it. That just doesn't work for me." I need to know if she needs another timer or if she doesn't. Even when she was 10, I would give her that freedom. Do you need another timer or no? The only way you can start learning how to think is if you're doing it all the time.
MM: When would you say she started taking an interest in learning the code?
Jess Graba: Well, she never really learned the code. She just learned the rules as we were doing them because I would explain as we're going...say she wanted to do another release on bars. I would tell her, "You have your special requirements. You can't do more than three out of the same family,” and stuff like that. She's smart and she would remember that. Then the next time she would say, "Well, can I do this?" Like a Nabieva and a Nabieva half. "Well, that's great, but then you don't get the Maloney half at the end of the bar routine. We need a trade-off. What are we going to put there instead? I mean, we can try it, but what are we going to put there instead?" That was how we always talked at the chalk bucket. We always talk like that. Every single time. Even at the games, when she was coming over about the three pass floor routine. We had been back and forth on that all year because of her ankle. She was seeing the same thing from the judges as I was. Saying, "Well, maybe I should pull the last pass because I think I'm losing three to five on that." That was not my decision. That was our decision and we both agreed. Well, all of us because I actually called Ali about it as well. Yeah, I mean, she learned the code as it was happening. I never taught it to her like in a book or anything like that. I had the code with me every day. I'd pull it out and I would pull it out when she would have an idea or she'd have a question. I'd pull it out and I would say, "Oh, nope. Look and this is what the rule is. So you can't do it." Or, "You can't."
MM: That's actually what I was going to ask about next - at the Olympics, you changed from a four pass routine to a three pass. From what I understand, both of you and Ali worked that out together on the phone. Can you tell me a little bit about how that happened?
Jess Graba: Yeah. Well, I mean, we were watching, at least I was watching the floor routines from the other countries at prelims and I was watching the floor routine and when they were judging us. Like I said, I always judge our routines anyways in real time. The only way I could figure out they were getting to those deductions was if they were hitting three to five on the passes, on the landings. Even though I might've thought they were one tenth landings, they were thinking they were three. Same thing with three and five. I actually, after prelims was planning on her not competing on floor for team, that was the plan. Sorry, she was going to compete on floor, but not on vault. We weren't going to change it right away, but we started talking about it right after prelims. Then she was kind of beat up. Her ankle and her shin were really bugging her. We were not going to do floor for the team finals was our group decision the next day. We didn't train that day and we started kind of kicking around the idea of three passes. Then she had to compete and we had to bag that a little bit.
Jess Graba: Then we went to the next day and said, "Well, we've got to decide whether we're going to do it." The nice thing is since she did compete and she did her four pass floor routine, and they came up with the same judging, the same score roughly within a couple, like a tenth and a half. We got more data and we both agreed. "Yeah, they're going to hammer that last pass. They're going to take three to five on that last pass." We decided to scrap the last pass and try to squeeze two, three tenths out of it. Suni and I worked out some of the ideas about how we would do it, but then the night before All-Around Final, I called Ali because it was such a time change. It was morning for her and I asked her to rework some choreography and videotape it and send it to me. She did that and then the next morning, when we were doing a walkthrough on the floor in the training gym, I FaceTimed Ali and had her work through the routine with Suni on the spot so that they could make sure that it was on beat with what they wanted. Yeah, it was a last minute crazy thing that we had to jump, but she's used to training a lot of different options. She's very open-minded about it. Then, like I said, she was bought in too. It was partly her idea. I think the three of us all knew that we had to do something because we needed to probably squeeze a tenth or two out of it. We knew it was going to be tight, especially with Andrade.
MM: Tell me the story of how Suni decided on going to Auburn and what that was like?
Jess Graba: I was doing camps at Auburn and had been doing them since Jeff started coaching at Auburn. I would bring some of my team kids and she came as a little kid. I came to do a camp and she came and just did the camp like a normal camper. She really loved the area. She just loved the gym, the coaches, the whole thing. When she started getting a lot of interest from colleges, obviously, she was curious about Auburn. I think the main thing about Auburn, I never gave Auburn any advantage. In my opinion, I never had to push it to Suni. I kind of wanted Suni to do whatever she wanted, but the one thing that I did want was that she doesn’t - her parents weren't super well off and everything. I wanted to make sure that if she got a scholarship somewhere that they didn't change coaches and then her lose her scholarship. My biggest concern was what happens if she got injured as a 16 or 17-year-old, was the college still going to honor it? Because I felt like I didn't want her to have nothing if she got hurt as a 16 or 17-year-old. I knew the head coach relatively well from Auburn. The one thing I told Suni is, "Well, the one thing I know for sure is he can't screw you over. That's the one thing because if he does, he's not coming to Christmas. That's kind of the way it is." That was the only advantage I think that Auburn had. Plus the fact that Jeff is obviously my brother and she feels like there's still a connection.
Jess Graba: She doesn't feel like it's a huge change. Like it's a change in his philosophy. Jeff coaches a lot like I do. I think if you ask Suni, he's a little more similar to my wife than he is to me. He coaches a lot like Ali, which is an easy transition for Suni. I think it worked out that she really felt comfortable with the coaches. Kurt and Jeff were kind of familiar and comfortable for her. At the same time, she really liked the campus. When she came down as an older athlete, she just loved the visit she did.
MM: Can you share a bit about each of your coaching styles and how they might be similar or different?
Jeff Graba: I think they're extremely similar. I think that's part of what Suni was pointing out. There's a difference in our approach. At the time, years and years and years ago, we gave a lot of voice to our athletes. We listened a lot. We asked a lot of questions. We wanted them involved in the process and that's one thing that's never changed. There are some philosophies in gymnastics and there's in some situations, some ways of coaching take longer than others. We selected a way of the coach that takes longer, but we believed years and years ago, we believed that it would take you farther if you invested that time and that effort. I think that's really what it boils down to. Technically, gymnastics is gymnastics. You have to turn over your roundoff fast. You have to get your arms back fast. Everybody's going to agree with that. The difference is how do you get your athlete to buy in? You can demand it. You can push it. You can yell, and scream, and get mad, or you can try to get them bought into the process. We have a saying at Auburn, "They're going to pull us farther than we can push them. If we can get them pulling us, we're going to go a lot farther." I think that's our philosophy. I think it paid off for Jess, and Ali, and Suni in the Olympics because they had a fully invested athlete who knew her limitations. Who knew the code. Who made great quality decisions on the fly. It paid off for her there, but it's paying off for her right now. She's doing something nobody else is doing in the world. She's the Olympic gold medalist who's trying to balance three 40 hour a week jobs. She's fully invested. It's like a 26, 28-year-old mind at this point.
Jess Graba: Yeah. I would say the one thing that Jeff and I, I know at Midwest, especially with Ali and I, our goal is to not be necessary. That's what we say all the time to Suni when she was at the Olympics. I'm like, "You don't need me." Because I knew she wasn't going to probably have me because I wasn't going to be the team coach. It was going to be Laurent, so I know she has to be able to do some of this stuff on the floor. My goal over the years leading up to that was that she wouldn't need me. I don't want to be necessary. I want to be there. I want to help. My job is to calm her down. Maybe remind her of a couple of things, but for the most part, I'm not necessary and that was the whole goal. She doesn't need Jeff anymore. She can coach herself on these routines at college. All she needs Jeff and Kurt and Ashley right now is to help her manage all the complexities of being a college athlete and an NIL kid. There's a lot of stuff going on that she's new to, but she's super mature in the gymnastics. I think what she probably brings now that was from all those years of training is that she can kind of figure out what she's doing right and wrong anyways. All she needs Jeff, and Kurt, and Ashley to do at this point is keep her headed in the right direction. Maybe make her do some of this stuff that none of us want to get up early in the morning and do. Some sort of conditioning or cardio. We all need a little push for that, but the rest of it, she probably doesn't need much. That's the hope. That was always the hope and that's what Jeff, and Ashley, and Kurt really do well is they empower their kids and turn them into very, very mature and well-adjusted young ladies. Hopefully, Suni's already there and can take it to the next step.
MM: What preparation did either or both of you do to help Suni prepare to transition from elite gymnastics to NCAA?
Jeff Graba: Quite a bit. I mean, honestly, my brother and I talk quite often about philosophy. One of the funny things about her three pass floor team is I believe that thought process...he had an injured athlete. He had a beat up girl in Suni early in this whole drama of the Olympic Trials. Everybody wants to talk about June, July, and August, but we were having conversations about a three pass floor routine before that. The reason I think we were having a conversation about three pass floor routine is because we were going over my floor routines. I was bouncing ideas off of him on how to maximize scoring and that type of stuff. The philosophy is very similar. We've built a system here at Auburn that is very similar to what he's building. Where the athlete has a voice and you give them options. We talked about her bar routine for instance. What's the new code asking for? What's the new code need? How are we going to work college routines? She could have three bar routines and it could be the first third, the middle third, and the last third of the bar set. How do we make that work? We've been working on that quite a bit for quite a while. We've known she's coming here. We've been doing it and she's been involved in that process too.
Jess Graba: We've talked a lot. I mean, as far as the transition to college, I just want him to make sure when she was doing her routines, when we were picking skills and doing routines, obviously we're trying to maximize for the elite possibility. You also want to think she's got another four or five years. You want to make sure that if she does want to continue elite, which she'll have that choice, I want to communicate with Jeff what I feel like are the easiest, simple routines for her to do at a moment's notice as a college athlete. Then would Ashley help her maintain some of her elite skills so there wasn't a huge...she wasn't going to rework her whole bar routine and then I'd have to redo the whole thing again if she wanted to do elite. It's a lot easier if we just keep it kind of the same philosophy and the same core swing elements. Like Jeff said, we've been talking about that for two years. Making sure that we're again, back to when I'm writing up all that stuff. I'm making sure that when I pick a thing I'd call Jeff and say, "What direction are you guys going with the single bar release stuff at the NCAA? Is it going to go in this direction or is it going to go away so with the vault? What direction are you guys going?"
Jess Graba: The floor routine, doing a two pass floor routine might not be very beneficial to her even though she could score higher, but it's going to not be very transitional if she wants to do elite. These are the things we've been talking about for a couple of years. Now obviously that includes Suni. Suni's been thinking about it, but now she's very invested. She'll probably be more vocal with Jeff now about what she thinks she can and cannot do and what she wants to do.
MM: Jeff, how has the transition been so far with Suni starting practice and whatnot?
Jeff Graba: It's been actually really pretty smooth with all things considered. She's not my first athlete that I got from my brother and she won't be my last. When he says, "She's going to have an opinion." Yeah. She has an opinion and she shares it. It's very unambiguous. She knows what she wants and then it's a matter of approaching it and trying to figure out the best way to get there. In that respect, It's been fantastic because that's what I want from my athletes. I want my athletes engaged, and invested, and to speak their mind, and not be afraid to speak your mind. No look, she's beat up. We're giving her a lot of rest, but we know we can't let her hands... We're not going to come back and take three months off of bars and come back and have rips up every day. She's doing some stuff and she's very invested in some of the maneuvers going into the next code. She's trying to work on what we think we're going to do for the next code, but we're taking it pretty easy. The real dilemma for her has been all the time constraints. It's always tough for a freshman with time constraints, but NIL with her demands and everybody wanting to interview or talk to her. People want a lot of endorsements, a lot of management people. That's been a heavy lift, but she's managing it really well. At least I feel like we're going in the right direction and she's not falling behind. She's definitely working extremely hard to keep up, but she's not falling behind.
MM: How do you plan to support her handling such a busy schedule with the GOAT Tour, Dancing With the Stars, and college courses along with competing?
Jeff Graba: Well, we did a lot of conversations beforehand. Like I say, Jess and Ali, Suni, and myself, we had some good conversations beforehand. We sort of knew. Now, I want everybody to remember that we were planning she was going to be the silver medalist, for sure. I mean, we weren't surprised with the results. We were planning to have a tiger on our hands. It's just bigger than we thought it would be, but we knew going in that Dancing With the Stars and the GOAT Tour, they weren't going to work well together. She was going to have to make some decisions and then you were going to have to negotiate one or the other with whoever you decided not to go with. We knew there were going to be endorsement situations. We put her in online schooling with the anticipation that she was going to be on the road a lot. We put her into online schooling that wasn't meeting during...it's called unsynchronized. We were concerned if she did Dancing With the Stars she'd be on west coast time and the class at 8:00 AM, which was 6:00 AM her time we didn't want that. We were pretty strategic in what we put her in. With the full anticipation and we made this commitment, my brother and I, and her, I remember the meeting.
Jeff Graba: We sat down before the Olympic Trials, where we said, "Whatever happens, we're going to support you and we're going to make it work. We're going to find a way to make it work. If you want to do all of this other stuff, we're going to make it work." I think with that being said, she's actually embarking on, she's probably only about 50% invested in everything that she's going to probably do this fall, but she's full speed. She's going to be out in LA with Dancing With the Stars and now our staff is taking turns living out there for a week at a time, helping her adjust. Helping her keep her gymnastics up. Being there as a support mechanism. Myself and Ashley Johnston we're taking turns going out there and her managers are out there as well...
Jess Graba: Helping her with her school. Yeah. I mean, that's one thing that we've talked about a lot even when we were talking about it before trials. I was telling Jeff the whole time, "She's going to be a gold medalist. She's probably going to win multiple medals.” That was the plan. We need to plan on that contingency. Everybody else says that she was geared for the silver, but in my personal opinion, and I told Jeff, "The gold was on the table in the All-Around no matter what." I always thought it was just like at trials. I mean, I felt like we still could win. I told Jeff, "You need to be prepared for that and you need to understand that her schooling she's going to need help because online is not easy." We've struggled going through her high school online. I was warning Jeff that she needs help. She needs somebody to just have more interaction, more people. Jeff and Ashley have been working out solutions so that she can get her schoolwork done. She can get her managerial stuff done and with her managers. Then she can also get gymnastics, which she shouldn't need a whole lot of work on gymnastics right now. She can rest a little bit, but then just stay healthy when she's doing Dancing With the Stars. That's kind of the key.
Jeff Graba: And therapy. She's beat up. A lot of therapy. A lot of basic gymnastics work right now and keeping up on academics and basically being there as support. Auburn University has been phenomenal. They're doing everything they can to help her. I think she feels extremely supported at this point, it doesn't make it easier for her, but she definitely thinks that she has the support she needs. We just have to get her through these next few months.
Jess Graba: Well, I will say because I don't work with Auburn or anything like this, but what I feel is Suni's going to do her end. If something messes up, that's going to be on Auburn. That's what I told Jeff for a long time. "She's a worker. She's going to work and when she's motivated when she's got a goal, she's going to do it. Back to what I was saying with the code and stuff, it's Jeff's job to make sure he sees the pitfalls in advance and prepares her for those pitfalls and has a plan. I think they're doing a good job of that. I think just this Dancing With the Stars thing is going to be...nobody's ever done this before. It ought to be a real learning experience, but it's a real heavy lift, but I'm really impressed with how Auburn is really, and Jeff, and Ashley, and Kurt really kind of band together to try to solve the problem and get her to actually have this opportunity.
MM: What kind of changes can we expect to see for her routines as she transitions to NCAA routines? Or does she plan to keep most of her difficulty in case she wants to transition back to elite?
Jeff Graba: It's going to be a mix. I'll go back to the three pass floor routine. That's one of her opinions that we had already had a conversation. She could throw a two pass floor routine and score pretty well, but her concern is if she wants to go for World Championships this next fall, she doesn't think that'll prepare her cardio-wise and stamina-wise for that type of thing well. She is going to most likely have a three pass floor routine. Now, she's a rare athlete. We sort of left it up as, "Hey January you could do a two-pass floor routine and February you could crank in the next pass because you're going to be pretty busy in the fall. You might want to just get your feet wet in the month of January." She can handle that. She's like, "Nope. Got it. I think that's a good plan." She just wants to make sure I understand that she believes a three pass floor routine should be there at the end of the season and that she should be working it. Then she's got an opinion on every pass she should be throwing. Now some of her opinions are really good and some of her opinions we need to have a conversation about, but it's the same everywhere. I think the one thing that we're looking at is making a change on vault. Jess and I have been having really good conversations about whether we need to make a change on vault. We'll see how this whole two months works out at Dancing With the Stars. What her legs feel like when they come back, but we might be making a change on vault. We might be doing a Yurchenko full for the first couple of months. We don't know.
MM: Jeff, what does having an All-Around Olympic gold medalist coming to Auburn mean for your program?
Jeff Graba: I think it's funny because I don't think anybody was prepared for what it would actually do. I mean, I think we sold our season tickets out in four days. We have more season tickets sold for us than men's basketball has. I feel like none of us were prepared for that end of the chaos that ensues. Our girls have said this before, Suni's just as talented as she was before. They all knew. When you have somebody of that talent level and that determination and that focus level coming in, it ramps up everybody around you. Everybody tries to get a little bit better. Everybody works a little bit harder. We've already seen that in the gym. A lot more focus on the people who are potentially losing a lineup spot or who think that they want to compete in the fifth spot or the fourth spot to be able to match up with somebody of this stature. It's been phenomenal for me, but it's the first time it's ever happened in NCAA gymnastics. It's almost like when people ask me what it's like to be a twin? I'm not sure I can answer that.
Jess Graba: Yeah. I feel like the whole time when she was preparing, it's the style of athlete that you're talking about. The style of athlete is that she just works differently. Obviously now it's not even going to be close to a normal season, but she's going to come in focused and she's not going to want to lose. I mean, that is not going to be in her. I tried to warn Jeff, it's going to be hard to get her to take a night off and say, "Well, you don't need to go tonight." That's going to be pretty hard. I'm going to be interested to see how that works because I think that's the one thing. It's up to him and his staff to make sure they're picking skills that she can do all the time safely and consistently because health is going to be the main thing for her. She can be there and she'll be a great leader for the whole program if she's healthy and she needs to be healthy. That was the main thing.
Jeff Graba: I think just watching what she says. This has all been driven by her. She's always wanted to come to Auburn. This was never going to be an option to not figure this out. She always has wanted to compete. I mean, that's what I love about it. I'd love to have a good solid, hard conversation with somebody who desperately wants to be in the lineup, and desperately wants to throw three floor passes. She wants to throw all of this difficulty at the same time as scoring a 9.975 or a 10. That's what I want. That's what we're getting right now. It is a different animal in the gym. It's a lot of fun.
MM: Do you feel that you are better coaches because of each other?
Jess Graba: Absolutely. I mean, you're a better athlete when you have good athletes around you. They make you better. The more you surround yourself with good coaches, challenging coaches, the better that is. That the better you're going to get. Like Jeff said, if Jeff has a bad NCAA meet, I'll be the first one. He probably won't even be in his press conference and I'll be on his phone. He probably hates that phone call because I'll be like, "What are you doing? You can't do this and you can't do that. What's happening?" The two of us push each other a lot to not screw it up and to not mess stuff up like that. I think if you bring myself, Ali, and then the Devo Coaches and the people that I've gotten a chance to work with and national team coaches. Then you allow that to bring that experience and talk about it with Jeff and he's been able to surround himself with a lot of good experiences in the NCAA over the last 10, 15 years. Yeah. We make each other better. It was a race to see who was going to win something first. Now Jeff has to go win something.
Jeff Graba: I mean, we do make each other better. He bounces things off me. One of the things that he was bouncing off of me is how do I make lineup decisions. When he was trying to figure out when to compete her on what event. When to throw her big routines. He's asking, "In your mind, when you're making a lineup decision, what are you looking for at this point? What are you looking for at that point?" None of our conversations are very, I would say to the outside person, it wouldn't sound pleasant. We argue a lot, but we don't see it as arguing. We're very passionate about what we do. Yeah, we both get better after every phone call.
MM: I have to ask, do people get you mixed up since your names and jobs are so similar? Do you have any funny stories where that's happened in the gymnastics world?
Jess Graba: I remember at World Championships in Germany, I had two coaches come up to me and ask about Auburn University and what their opportunities might be. I was like, "I'm not Jeff." They had no clue. They thought that Jeff was coaching at World Championships. There's been several times at JO Nationals or something like that, I accidentally wore an orange shirt one year. It was a major mistake because I had every kid at JO Nationals seemed to be coming up and going, "When is camp this year? Because we really wanted to come to the camp," or whatever. I had to call Jeff from the practice gym at JO Nationals going, "When is your camp because everybody's asking me?" I'm like, "I can't keep saying this. I just want to start telling them the answer like it's in June or something."
Jeff Graba: It happens all the time. I think it was funny at World Championships because he's out on the floor getting questions like that and I actually traveled over there with his wife, with my sister-in-law, and was sitting in the stands. The amount of people who thought that I was not coaching Suni just to hang out in the stands with my wife was pretty crazy. I was walking my dog here in the neighborhood and one of my neighbors...this was the day after I think Suni won the gold and they congratulated me and asked me if I was heading back? Yeah, I don't commute quite that fast. These things are all over the place. It happens all the time.
MM: Is there anything you feel like I've missed that you'd like to share about either of your journeys in the sport, your time coaching, or anything about Suni's journey that you'd like to share?
Jeff Graba: I think the one thing I just want to bring about is Jess and I, our philosophy is to not be front and center. We want our athletes front and center. This is Suni's story. We are supporting her and always will, but I just feel like that's important to point out. Suni won that gold medal and Jess and Ali deserve a ton of credit for the gold medal, but the athlete does it. We joke around a lot, saying, just don't mess it up for the athlete. I just want to make sure that we continue to point out that I don't like, never have liked it when they give coaches credit for athletes being successful.
Jess Graba: Totally agree. Absolutely agree. It's nice to do the interview because it's always nice when somebody actually asks the coach something instead of just standing over on the corner. At the same time, it's the athlete that does all of this extra work. I mean, we all make sacrifices. It's a team thing everybody does, but I really like the kid to get all the credit because Suni did all of this and she's the one that decided to take this on. Same with the NIL stuff and going into college and stuff. I just want to make sure that since she did that, that we're behind her a hundred percent and making sure that we're making the road and the path as easy as possible for her.
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