Laurie Hernandez, at first gymnastics meet in 4 1/2 years, is back because she loves it

Laurie Hernandez
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Laurie Hernandez competes in a gymnastics meet this Saturday for the first time in four and a half years. So much changed since she won Olympic gold and silver medals in 2016 as the youngest woman in the entire 555-athlete U.S. delegation in Rio.

“I’d like to see how [a meet] feels as an almost 21-year-old rather than competing at 16,” she told NBC Sports last week. “It’s going to be different, I’m well aware.”

Hernandez’s return is the headline athlete story going into the Winter Cup in Indianapolis, the first elite gymnastics meet in the U.S. in nearly one year.

NBCSN airs men’s competition on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET, featuring past national champion and world medalist Yul Moldauer and many more Tokyo Olympic hopefuls. Earlier Friday, the Nastia Liukin Cup for female level-10 gymnasts airs at 2:30 on NBCSN.

NBC has the main women’s session on Saturday at 12:30 with Hernandez, plus team world champions Suni Lee, Jade Carey and Riley McCusker. The broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

U.S. women’s high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster equated the meet to a preseason football game.

“It’s important, but it doesn’t really dictate who’s going to the Super Bowl,” he said. “What you use this for, and Laurie’s doing a good job of using it appropriately, [is to] get the cobwebs out of what it’s like to be in a competition again.

“I’m encouraging them to use it as an opportunity to see the routine structure that you have going right now. Skills and connections, are they working? And if they’re not working, then this is when you want to know that. If you’re going to make mistakes, now is the time to do that so you can really work those bugs out.”

An Olympic bid is not the only reason that Hernandez returned to training in earnest in 2019, but it’s a primary one.

“We’re not half doing it. We’re full sending it at this point,” she said, “super excited” about competing, albeit without spectators. “It’s results oriented. I’m trying to make the team.”

Hernandez said last Friday that it had not been decided whether she would compete on all four apparatuses at the Winter Cup. Regardless, she plans to add more difficult skills at the national championships in June, where gymnasts qualify for trials three weeks later.

“My first priority [at Winter Cup] is to go in and hit clean routines and show that I can be consistent,” Hernandez said. “But my next one is to enjoy myself.”

In 2016, Hernandez had the fortune (or misfortune) of becoming age-eligible for senior meets in an Olympic year. There was little time, at age 15, to ease into competing against the likes of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.

The previous nine U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics teams included an athlete who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year. Hernandez, as the reigning U.S. junior all-around champion, was predicted to be the one to extend that streak before her first senior routine.

“When I would think about competitions, like anybody else, my stomach would churn, and I would feel just sick and nervous and a lot of pressure,” she said last week.

Last spring, Hernandez said publicly that former coach Maggie Haney verbally and emotionally abused her leading up to the Rio Games, where Hernandez earned team gold and balance beam silver.

Hernandez said she developed eating disorders and depression as a result of the abuse. Haney, who reportedly denied accusations, is now suspended into 2025 after multiple gymnasts testified against her.

“I thought I hated gymnastics, and it wasn’t until mid 2018 I realized that it was the people that made the experience bad, not the sport itself,” was posted on Hernandez’s Instagram last May. “I moved across the country (NJ-CA) at 18 to try a fresh start. … Making the 2020 team would be a dream come true of course, but my first priority from the beginning was my happiness.”

She began working out under coaches Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, where 2012 Olympians McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross formerly trained.

“They’re always kind of meeting me wherever my body and my brain can give them,” Hernandez said of Zhang and Liang. “If I come in, and I’m exhausted, then the training plans change. And if I come in, and I have a lot of energy, then the training plans change. If they give me an assignment, and I can’t do it, then they tailor it to something that I can do.”

In November 2019, Hernandez participated in a USA Gymnastics training camp for the first time since Rio. She was set to return to competition in spring 2020 before the pandemic hit.

Hernandez has repeated that the one-year Olympic postponement was to her benefit, allowing more time to prepare for her meet comeback. She was still impacted, spending several months last year back home with family in New Jersey, working out 2,000 miles from her coaches.

Hernandez, who took UCLA extension classes in acting and screen writing last year, said that she feels stronger than ever due to muscle changes over the last four years.

“Body’s hanging in there. I’m actually quite surprised,” she said. “It’s interesting to train with a post-puberty adult body rather than as a prepubescent 16-year-old. It took a lot of getting used to.”

The gymnast who winked at the judges in Rio still gushes about competing on floor exercise, having choreographed her own routine. The uneven bars are love/hate. The balance beam, where she whispered “I got this” to herself before mounting in Rio, is calming, a contrast from five years ago.

No U.S. woman made back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000 before Douglas and Raisman reached Rio, and both of them came back to competition more than a year before the Games.

Forster saw Hernandez train in person last autumn. Then again on Zoom during a virtual camp in January, when she performed on all four apparatuses and showed “a lot of improvement,” he said.

There are different challenges for any gymnast trying to make this Olympic team. The roster for the team event is smaller — from five in 2016 down to four, though the U.S. has fifth and sixth spots for individual events only. Carey already clinched one of them.

“We have a deeper field of athletes now than we did five years ago,” Forster said. “In Rio, Laurie and Aly and Simone had really established themselves as the top three athletes in America, pretty securely, and we probably now have six or seven athletes that have done that. It’s a deeper competition, different criteria for making the team [more focus on all-arounders than specialists than in 2016]. So it’s a challenge. It’s going to be a pretty big challenge for Laurie.”

Hernandez knows about the skeptics on social media, even though they haven’t seen her training.

“There’s a lot of people who are kind of expecting me to not do well this year, simply because I came back late or whatever it is,” said Hernandez, who plans to compete Saturday in a super hero-themed leotard, the specific identity a secret for now. “Honestly, I’m not doing this for anybody else. I’m doing it for me because I love it. I really do love it. And, especially going back to competition, I want to love competing again.”

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