How Auburn’s Suni Lee and Gabby McLaughlin choreographed a floor routine in two days

By Karyssa D'Agostino | February 2, 2023
Auburn's Suni Lee performs on floor during the semifinals of the 2022 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships.
Auburn's Suni Lee performs on floor during the semifinals of the 2022 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships. (© Amy Sanderson)

Auburn gymnastics’ home opener at Neville Arena had it all: a sold out venue, crowd entertainment from Derrian Gobourne’s brother, Derric, a formidable opponent in the Arkansas Razorbacks, and a very, VERY new floor routine from sophomore sensation Suni Lee.

With all the excitement that came out of the Tigers’ win over Arkansas on January 20, it might be easy to overlook Lee’s brand new floor routine, which was choreographed by her teammate Gabby McLaughlin… two days before the meet.

The pair casually shared the story in post-meet interviews, revealing the routine was born that week, as if all floor routines are created in that short of time (read: they’re not).

Suni Lee performs her new floor routine for the first time during Auburn’s home meet against Arkansas on January 20, 2023.

“Me and Gabby worked on my floor routine literally two days ago,” Lee said. “We were in the gym for two hours and just trying to put it together.”

“We got the music Tuesday and then did it on Wednesday,” Mclaughlin added, giggling alongside her teammate.

“And competed it on Friday,” Lee concluded. “I didn’t even do a [full] floor routine with it; that was literally the first floor routine I’ve done.”

The set wasn’t even supposed to be competed for the first time until the team faced Alabama on February 3, but the young women had other ideas and took matters into their own hands, delegating music mixing duties to their head coach and taking the reins.

“Jeff was like, ‘You can do it when we go against Bama,’ and I was like, ‘Well no, because I want to do it this week when we do our home meet,’” Lee said, recalling the conversation with her coach. “I wanted to debut at our home meet because I knew the crowd was gonna be amazing. I mean, everybody was talking about it. So I was really excited for tonight.”

Head Coach Jeff Graba corroborated the story, deferring the decision to two of his team leaders and trusting them in the process.

“Our team is populated with a bunch of young women who, when they put their mind to something, I have to get out of the way,” Graba said. “That’s what they did. They basically told me they’re doing it this Friday.”

That led to a rush order from Graba, who lost sleep cutting the music for Lee’s routine. After his athletes’ vetoed three versions before he texted them the fourth and final cut, which McLaughlin responded to with the love reaction. While he got some sleep, the ladies got to work.

“The first [mix] was full worked up, and we just didn’t know if it was going to hold,” Graba said of the process. “Suni’s pretty special. You have to put something out there that can hold water, and this one does.”

Auburn's Suni Lee celebrates with her teammates during the 2023 Super 16 meet in Las Vegas.
Auburn’s Suni Lee celebrates with her teammates during the 2023 Super 16 meet in Las Vegas. (© Amy Sanderson)

For her part, in addition to being a stronghold on multiple events, McLaughlin has choreographed floor routines for many of her other teammates.

“That’s a story that fans don’t know yet, but I pulled her aside at the end of the meet after Suni went and gave her a hug and thanked her, and I told her she’s our secret weapon because that’s a pretty refined talent she has,” Graba reflected. “The other end of the spectrum is that our girls are requesting her because she’s good to work with and they trust her, and I just think it’s really cool that it’s in-house.”

Graba points to this story as a shining example of the trust his athletes have in each other and his team’s special bond.

“To me, it says a lot about Gabby, and it says a lot about Suni,” Graba said. “Yes, she can have anybody she wants, and I would be willing to bet almost everybody would trip over themselves to do her routine.”

Graba said the familial bond his gymnasts have is what helps them get through meets confidently, even on the tougher days. 

“I think that’s what impresses me. They’re in there, they’re family, and they’re just going to do whatever it takes to be good as a group,” Graba said proudly. “When you do that, when you’re a little bit selfless like that, you can get through these meets pretty easily.”

After Lee earned a near-perfect 9.975 in her debut of the new routine, Graba rested her on floor in the Tigers’ win against NC State on January 27, but fans shouldn’t have to wait long to see the routine again, as No. 6 Auburn travels to No. 11 Alabama on February 3 in another top 25 road contest.

In a season of lasts for the reigning Olympic all-around champion, she’ll surely welcome another chance to share her art with the world.