TOKYO — Just a few seconds into her uneven bars routine, Suni Lee knew it wasn't going to go as planned. An early mistake forced her to improvise the rest of the way, fighting just to stay on the equipment.
Lee was proud of getting through it, and of collecting an Olympic bronze medal Sunday. But her third medal of the Tokyo Games didn't soothe the sting of missing her chance for gold in her favorite event. Thrown off her game by pressure, the no-warmup format and the giddy aftermath of winning all-around gold, the St. Paul gymnast finished behind Nina Derwael of Belgium and Anastasiia Iliankova of Russia on the first night of event finals at Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
Instead of performing her signature routine — considered one of the most difficult in the world — Lee gutted her way through a set with a difficulty score of only 6.2. Her best routine has a 6.8. She received a score of 14.500, trailing Derwael (15.200) and Iliankova (14.833).
"This medal probably means more to me than the all-around gold medal did, because bars is my thing,'' Lee said. "So to mess it up like this, I'm kind of sad about it.''
Coach Jess Graba expressed a different emotion. In the individual finals, athletes are not allowed a brief warmup immediately before their event, a situation he called dangerous. Graba pointed out that many of the world's best gymnasts struggled Sunday night.
"Nobody did their normal bar routine,'' Graba said. "It's dangerous. It's just not a smart move. The routines are too difficult, the skills are too high-level.''
Following her routine, Lee was surprised to get a medal of any color. She already had the all-around gold and team silver, and the bronze made her the second Minnesotan to win more than two medals at a single Olympics. Lakeville swimmer Regan Smith finished the Tokyo Games on Sunday with two silvers and a bronze.
“I put too much pressure on myself. And I felt like I wanted to make everyone else happy, because I feel like bars is my thing. And a lot of people were really rooting for me. So I kind of feel like I let people down, but it's OK.”
Though Lee was happy to get on the podium, she couldn't avoid feeling disappointed.
"Bars is the one thing I was looking forward to the most, because it's my favorite event, and the one thing I feel like people kind of know me for,'' Lee said. "This wasn't the bar routine I wanted to do or was supposed to do. I'm still really proud of myself for staying with it. There were so many times during my bar routine that I could have just given up and jumped off, but I didn't. And I have a bronze medal.''
Like Lee, Derwael is known for the rigor and precision of her bars routine. It has a difficulty score of 6.7, only .1 less than Lee's best.
Lee and Derwael both scored higher than 15.000 in the Olympic qualification round, team finals and all-around finals, the only gymnasts to do so. That set up an intriguing matchup Sunday. But Lee said "this week has not been easy'' on bars, and it got harder in the individual finals.
She had done her 6.8 routine in the team and all-around finals, and figured she would need it again to win the gold. Since winning the all-around title Thursday, Lee had been caught up in social media and the whirlwind of instant celebrity. With all those distractions, she lost focus, a bad sign before an event that requires intense concentration.
Lee also felt the weight of Olympic expectations. She managed to push that aside in her earlier competitions, but in the event she loves most, she could not.
"I put too much pressure on myself,'' she said. "And I felt like I wanted to make everyone else happy, because I feel like bars is my thing. And a lot of people were really rooting for me. So I kind of feel like I let people down, but it's OK.''
Lee and Graba both criticized the no-warmup rule. Lee called it "dumb and dangerous.'' Graba watched with dismay as athlete after athlete struggled.
"I feel for these kids,'' he said. "You wait your whole life to have this moment, and then the one thing you're used to, they change on you. It's just not right.''
Graba said if one move is slightly off, it has a domino effect on the entire routine. Lee's intended routine fell apart quickly, forcing her to wing it. "She just kept making stuff up and stayed on the bar,'' Graba said. "I don't know how she did it.''
Lee will wrap up her first Olympics with the balance beam finals Tuesday. She's planning a mental lockdown until then, staying off social media and deleting Twitter from her phone.
"I'm probably just going to cool down a little bit and just focus on what I need to do,'' she said. "Especially because we're coming to the end.''