Suni Lee, America’s uneven bars queen and all-around champ, did not hit her best routine in the uneven bars finals Sunday night in Tokyo, but it was still enough to add a bronze medal to round out her collection of gold and silver so far in these games.
Lee was the leadoff athlete and she missed connections between skills in three different spots in her routine. At its fully executed difficulty, her bars routine is the hardest in the world with a 6.8 difficulty score. She’d done it at its full potential in both the team final and the all-around competition, both times pulling out clutch performances that were absolutely crucial in the moment. But in her fourth and final time competing bars in these games, her rhythm was off, and she pulled out a routine with a 6.2 difficulty score, six-tenths back from her best.
Lee’s highest execution score for uneven bars was an 8.6 in the team final and in qualifications, but in this event final, she scored a 8.3 for execution.
Lee had already taken the title of the most relatable athlete in these Olympics when she won the all-around in a full set of acrylic nails and fake lashes and gave the best answer for what she would do now that she had won gold: “I don’t even know, I’m gonna go eat a pizza, that’s all I’ve been craving this whole time.” And after she stuck her dismount, Lee laughed and stuck her tongue out like, Whoops! Oh well, who cares, I’m still the all-around champion.
Lee knew her 14.500 score wasn’t going to be enough to win, with all seven athletes still to go, including the 2019 World Champion in this event, Belgium’s Nina Derwael, who had already tied Suni’s personal best 15.4 score on bars in the team final. Lee’s 14.5 bars final score would have placed her 13th among the qualifying scores for uneven bars.
Derwael nailed a five skill combination and then was a little off on her last handstand position. Like Lee, this was not Derwael’s best routine of these games, but it was enough to give her a solid lead with a 15.200.
ROC’s Anastasiia Iliankova got the best execution score on bars in this final, with an 8.533 for a 14.833 total score. Iliankova bumped Lee to third, and it didn’t seem like Lee’s score would hold on for bronze, but then China’s Fan Yilin fell on her butt on her dismount, and ROC’s Angelina Melnikova fell off the high bar when she lost momentum on a toe full pirouette. China’s Lu Yufei, with a 6.0 difficulty score, hit a solid routine and came just one-tenth away from Lee’s score, with a 14.400. The bronze was Germany’s Elizabeth Seitz’s to snatch. As the last athlete, she knew exactly what score to beat to get on the podium, and she scored a 14.700 on bars in qualifying. Her 6.2 difficulty score matched Lee’s, but she fell short on execution, when she paused on her way up to a handstand position. Her 14.400 meant Lee’s 14.500 was just enough to secure the bronze.
Uneven bars was the last event final of the day, and none of the athletes aside from Iliankova got close to competing at their full potential. Athletes and coaches raised the same questions about the lack of a one-touch warmup that they’d voiced after the women’s vault final and the men’s floor and pommel horse earlier in the day.
“I think that rule is so dumb,” Lee told reporters afterwards. “It’s so dangerous.”
The rule applies only to individual event finals, so Lee had been able to do a 30-second warmup on each apparatus right before competing in qualifying, team final, and all-around.
Her coach, Jess Graba, told Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein the same. “Every one of those kids fought,” he said. “They only had one fall, but they all struggled. That wasn’t their normal routine.”
After still coming away with bronze on an off day, Lee continued to endear herself to America on Twitter.