Inside Auburn Gym Suni Lee practices ahead of NCAA Championships

FORT WORTH, Texas — Among the many endearing moments of Wednesday’s practice for the NCAA Gymnastics Championships was an amused call of encouragement.

“Good, Auburn,” the Tigers heard as they walked from the beam to the ground. “Yes, Auburn.” You would think she was a team mom. But as the gymnasts’ heads spun, they saw rookie Sophia Groth was the source, smiling as she stretched on a table in the corner of Dickies Arena.

Morale was high as the No. 7 seed Auburn refined routines and tested equipment, simulating the team’s order of events Thursday (6:00 p.m. CT, ESPN2): beam, floor, vault and finally asymmetric bars.

The Tigers would give each other feedback on equipment as they worked on each event. Junior Aria Brusch enjoyed the inflatable floor. Each venue’s gear “has its own flavor,” as coach Jeff Graba described it. Before the national semi-final, Graba held a team meeting on Tuesday evening.

The message?

“There are four events in gymnastics, not three,” Graba said. “Because we’ve been very good in three events in recent meetings and we’ve always lost one. So it would be good to start (strong) at the start of tomorrow’s game.”

The Beam is generally considered the most mentally taxing event due to its extremely slim margin for error. It’s also Auburn’s top event, with Groth and Suni Lee leading the way. It will be the rotation of tone, the potential difference between survival and elimination.

Graba is a coach who is never afraid of an exercise that disturbs the minds of athletes. For beam, the old trick is to make sure gymnasts don’t get too comfortable facing one direction, where peripheral vision is always the same.

Graba’s spin: “You warmed up the right way, then you had to compete the other way” in practice, Brusch said – immediately changing direction to force a quick mental adjustment to the subtle change. “I was freaked out about it.”

Thursday, maybe it will pay off.

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“If you look here, the beam, the two sides are exactly the same but they’re not exactly the same,” Graba said Wednesday. “So on one side there’s a big black wall on your left. And on one side it’s a big black wall on your right. And what you don’t want is to get here and neither neither is feeling well.”

To advance, Auburn needs one of the team’s top two scores in its session. It’s an uphill battle, as Graba pointed out, with Auburn’s opponents including the defending national champion (Michigan) and the favorite team to win it all this weekend (Florida).

Rather than setting tangible scoring goals that could hypothetically latch onto those opponents, Brusch said the mindset would be to “lean on my teammate. Like if my teammate goes 9.85, I want get a 9.875 or better. … I don’t think putting a score on it is a great idea, because you don’t want to work too hard for that score.”

In a sport as superstitious as gymnastics can be, warming up was crucial. Did Graba like what he saw?

“We actually had more problems when we’re really good on warm-up days than when we’re struggling,” he said. “So I tell everyone we’ve had the right amount of struggle but just the right amount of success.”

The training session ended successfully on the bars. Auburn’s Olympic gold medalist Lee will anchor this final event on Thursday. She made a successful landing during her last warm-up. As the heated conversations continued to the side, teammate Drew Watson nodded firmly and told no one, “Ten. Ten. Ten.”