The difficulty in Sunisa Lee's uneven bars routine is why 'she's the best athlete in the world right now'

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Jul. 31—St. Paul teen Sunisa Lee posted a video on TikTok in May, long before she was an Olympic gold medalist. She captioned it, "Enjoy me breaking myself." It was a fitting description considering the clip showed the various ways the 18-year-old gymnast has fallen during practice.

The most painful moments come with Lee on uneven bars. Or, more accurately, not on uneven bars. She is shown flying off the high bar, smacking the low bar at full speed and crashing violently to the floor. There are different variations of the same wipeout.

All in search of perfection.

That's essentially what Lee achieved Thursday when she nailed her routine on uneven bars on her way to taking home the gold medal in the gymnastics individual all-around competition at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. While she was stellar in each of the four events in the all-around — she had to be with Rebeca Andrade of Brazil also at the top of her game — Lee probably doesn't win without her massive advantage on the uneven bars.

She has the most difficult routine in the world, even if she does make it look so easy.

The rising star gets to put that routine on display one more time at these Olympics, chasing another gold medal in the uneven bars competition on Sunday. Her competition begins at 5:27 a.m. Sunday local time.

Little Canada native Maggie Nichols still remembers the first time she saw this particular routine.

"I was like, 'Wait. Is this real?' " said Nichols, a star gymnast who has won multiple NCAA championships at Oklahoma University. "I didn't do half the skills she's doing in her routine."

The same goes for Ayden Her, who trained with with Lee at Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada, and has seen her fall time and time again.

"I can't do any of the things in Suni's bar routine and I spent my whole life in the sport," Her said. "It's so incredibly hard."

It raises the question: What makes Lee's uneven bars routine so hard?

For starters, she does some of the most difficult skills imaginable, then takes them a step further by doing them in succession. Even some of the most accomplished gymnasts can't do the singular skills Lee throws down in her routine, let alone attempt to connect them.

"She's got a couple of sequences in her routine where she goes back-to-back-to-back with it," said John Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian, who also competed in gymnastics at the University of Minnesota. "She goes from the high bar down to the low bar and then right back up to the high bar. That's where it goes to another level."

Let's get technical here for a a moment.

Looking specifically at Lee's routine, she starts with a skill called the Nabieva, which consists of her flinging her body above the high bar, then catching herself on the way down. After catching herself, she immediately transitions into a skill called the Bhardwaj, a flip and full twist through midair while soaring down to the low bar. Then, without breaking stride, she immediately propels herself back up to the high bar.

"You look at the Nabieva and Bhardwaj and those skills are wicked hard by themselves," said Jeff Graba, the gymnastics coach at Auburn University, where Lee will start school in the fall. "The fact that she puts those wicked hard skills together, and then connects something out of them, it's pretty revolutionary. We are starting to see it more now because Suni is connecting things that in the past nobody thought we'd be able to connect."

As if those jaw-dropping connections at the beginning of her routine aren't enough, Lee does it again a few seconds later during her routine, floating from the high bar down to the low bar and then right back up to the high bar.

Asked to contextualize the difficulty of Lee's connections, Roethlisberger likened it to going to the golf course, lining up a few 30-foot putts on the green and making all of them with a split-second in between each shot.

"That's not even a good example," Roethlisberger added with a laugh. "There is no good example. The margin for error is razor thin. It happens ridiculously fast and she has to be perfect."

Maybe more impressive is when Lee isn't perfect.

Those moments showcases her incredible skill set as she is able to adapt on the fly to keep the routine in motion. That played out in real time last week during qualifying as Lee missed a key connection. Instead of panic, she instinctively shifted to her backup plan, finishing the rest of her routine without a hitch.

"She's so savvy that if people don't know the routine, they wouldn't be able to tell she made a mistake," Roethlisberger said. "To say it's a split-second decision is not even doing it justice. It's faster than a blink of an eye. She has to feel it and decide, 'Nope. I'm doing something else.'

"All her skills are connected," Roethlisberger added. "If we were to push play on a routine, with her, it's almost like pushing fast forward instead because once she goes, it doesn't slow down. You're just holding on for the ride once she gets going. And it's a pretty amazing ride."

It's not over yet. After making history in the all-around on Thursday, Lee has a chance to win a gold medal on uneven bars. She will have to be as close to perfect as possible. As Graba noted, "There are no backup plans there. She's not going to be able to win the gold medal if she doesn't go for the whole thing."

If this past week is any indication, Lee has what it takes to rise to the occasion. All those falls from her past be damned.

"If people look at what she's doing, they might think, 'Wow, that's crazy,' " Graba said. "Honestly, she's probably thinking the same exact thing. When she grabs that bar she knows the repercussions if she gets this wrong. And she still goes and grabs the bar. She's not fearless. She's overridingly courageous. Her drive is so high that it gives her the courage to override some of the fear. She's pushing the limit as far as what the human body can do. That's why I truly believe she's the best athlete in the world right now."

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