The Great Grabas

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Great Grabas

The Brothers Graba, back in the day. Your guess is as good as mine.

Not too long ago, there was a wacky way you could find a picture of Jeff Graba in his orange Auburn shirt. You could Google “Jess Graba.”

It was posted on some random, defunct gymnastics blog

The caption: “Finding out Jeff Graba has an identical twin who also coaches gymnastics has me shook.”

The Grabas, 52, nod. 

“Yeah,” they say in unison, “we get that a lot.”

And, yeah, they understand why.

Jeff coaches Auburn’s gymnastics team, a program he’s made nationally relevant in his ten-year tenure. 

Jess heads Midwest Gymnastics, an internationally competitive gym in Little Canada, Minnesota.

Two brothers independently at the top of the same profession is rare enough. But identical twins with nearly identical names — “It’s a horrible idea,” Jeff says, “but our parents weren’t thinking” — who both parlayed economics degrees from the University of Minnesota, property investments made in college, and a 10-year, Minneapolis bar scene hunt for hair metal glory into separate, uncommonly successful careers in… gymnastics? 

It’s a wild, Type A tale for the ages. 

You could probably trace it all the way back to their childhood in Nimrod, Minnesota (Pop. 102), hauling hay, milking cows, enjoying hard work because that’s all there was to enjoy. But it’s probably safe to skip to their teenage wrestling days.

At 5’5, your high school athletics options are kind of limited. Most team sports are out. Wrestling isn’t. And so the Brothers Graba became grapplers, good ones, and they wanted to stay that way.

“We started gymnastics basically to work on our strength and conditioning,” Jess says. “But we ended up really enjoying gymnastics and kind of began pursuing it further.”

Kind of, indeed.

They began coaching the sport while still in high school, offering their services to schools, hosting camps at community centers. They kept it up in college. They kept up a lot in college. 

The details are borderline insane, so for the sake of sanity and brevity let’s just say that from the second they stepped onto campus as aerospace engineering majors in 1987 to the moment they left with the economics degrees that were more aligned with their ambitions, the Graba boys were obsessed with making it. At everything. At the same time.

House flipping. Property management. Gymnastics coaching.  

Even rock ‘n’ roll.

On a typical Friday night in, say, 1990, you could find Malone racking up bar tabs and breaking hearts at The Mirage in downtown Minneapolis. Jeff handled bass and backup vocals. Jess was lead singer and rhythm guitar. Think Great White, Ratt, Bon Jovi. They were good.

The Gorgeous Grabas, Jess and Jeff, sticking the landing with Malone.

An average day: Class till noon, band practice till three, co-head coaching at North High School in North St. Paul till six, club coaching till nine, then more practice, maybe a show. In bed by three. Repeat. 

Dating was a dirty word, downtime nonexistent. 

“We went at the band 100 percent,” Jess says. Jeff had just said the same thing about the property management business and the gymnastics dreams.

Jeff Graba, flippin’ awesome.

But after graduating in 1992, the focus finally narrowed. Flipping houses was hard. Trying to make it as musicians was hard. 

Coaching was always fun. 

So, in 1995, they opened Midwest Gymnastics in a small warehouse in Shoreview. 

“It wasn’t even big enough for a whole floor exercise mat,” Jeff says. 

But it was big enough. Business eventually boomed. By 2000, there was even time for romance. Except when there wasn’t. 

Jeff married into a family with three kids. His wife, Bridget, worked days. A club gymnastics coach typically works nights. It wasn’t ideal. Nor were the looming costs of college. 

“We had a mutual friend who said ‘you need to go into college coaching so you’ll only have to pay half tuition,’” Jeff says. “So Jess and I had to decide — should we expand the gym, or should he take over Midwest while I went into college coaching.”

Once that mutual friend, former Golden Gophers assistant Doug Day, told Jeff about an assistant position open at Utah State, the decision was made. 

After helping the Aggies to their first Western Gymnastics Conference championship, Jeff was quickly snatched up by rival University of Utah’s legendary Greg Marsden. 

“Greg taught me everything I know about college coaching,” Jeff says. 

In 2010, that’s exactly what Auburn was counting on. 

In 2017, the thrice-named SEC Coach of the Year, managed to do what no Auburn coach before him had done since the Carter administration: Beat Bama. In 2020, he did it again.

Off the record, Jess is proud. 

“But I can’t say I’m ‘proud’ of him,” he says, legs up, feet crossed. “Is that weird for you, Jeff?”

“Nope, I can’t say it either,” Jeff says, legs up, feet crossed.

Mutual admiration society though they’re not, the Grabas still don’t go two days without talking. And they do those weird twin things you hear about. Jess will call, halfway around the world, with a solution to the exact problem he had no idea Jeff was trying to solve. Stuff like that. 

“Well, what I will say is that I’m impressed with Jess because I think he’s reinvented a lot of how you teach high-level gymnastics in the developmental stages, the way you put teams together,” Jeff says. “He’s on the forefront of that with some of the best coaches in the country, and I think he’s forcing people to recognize that he’s one of the best coaches in the world.” 

Case in point, future Auburn gymnast and Olympic shoo-in Sunisa Lee.

The high school senior was just 0.350 points from beating Simone Biles in the all-around competition at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Lee committed to Auburn in 2017 and signed her letter of intent in November, a few months after being profiled by the New York Times. She’s easily the most marquee recruit in the program’s history.

Her coach? Jess Graba.

Lee is the fourth Midwest Gymnastics product signed by Auburn since Jeff Graba arrived. But the propitious, fraternal pipeline is not without its comical kinks. 

“People at meets have complained, thinking that it’s an NCAA violation—thinking that Jess is me and that I’m in a spot I’m not supposed to be in,” Jeff says, laughing. “I’ll just be sitting in the stands with popcorn, watching.”


“Yeah, some people have asked questions, and said how unfair it is that Jeff gets to be on the floor at championships,” Jess says. “And one time at the J.O. (Junior Olympic) Nationals, I could not get out of the building without everybody talking to me, saying ‘Hey, I want to come to Auburn’s camp this year!’

“I was like, I’m never wearing an orange shirt again.”

from The War Eagle Reader

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