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

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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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As Ilia Malinin ponders quintuple jump, figure skating may face an urgent matter

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SAN JOSE, California – The subject of a five-revolution jump was sure to come up, now that Ilia Malinin has become the first person to land a fully rotated quadruple Axel, which has four and one-half revolutions in the air.

And, in Malinin’s case, to land it cleanly not only once but three times this fall, the most recent with stunning command at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Malinin intermittently, said via telephone that he and the skater talked about a quintuple when they were working together in California during the high school senior’s recent holiday break.

“I was basically saying a five-revolution toe loop can be done,” Arutunian said. “He agreed and was smiling.”

“It is definitely in the back of my mind right now,” Malinin, 18, said in media conference call last week. “It’s very hard to think of it at this moment because it’s still pretty much the middle of the middle of the season. I think after the season I’ll think about it, and maybe we will see one.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

With a laugh, Arutunian described the impish plan he is dreaming of for Malinin to make the attempt.

The jump would come out of the blue.

This is the scenario: Arutunian would ask Malinin, favored to win his first senior U.S. Championship title this weekend in San Jose, not to publicize his practicing a quint on social media, as he had done with the quad Axel and many of the unprecedented jump combinations he tries.

“He would just come out and do it in a competition, and that would be a shock, right?” said Arutunian, who guided Nathan Chen to the 2022 Olympic title. “Imagine what the officials would do then.”

As it turns out, the officials would do literally nothing. Under current rules, Malinin would get zero points for the jump, as quintuple jumps are not yet recognized or given a value in the sport’s Scale of Values (SOV).

That is something U.S. Figure Skating president Sam Auxier plans to discuss with Fabio Bianchetti, head of the International Skating Union’s singles and pairs technical committee, when the two are to meet at next month’s Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs.

“I believe Fabio and the technical committee will update the SOV soon, and if anyone is practicing (a quint) and may try it, they will get the change in before it is done in competition,” Auxier said in a text message. “With Ilia, I think that needs to be urgent!”

Even before such a rules change is made, Auxier said, if competition officials were aware a skater was planning to attempt a quint, they would ask for an emergency ruling and have the tech team add a value into the computer system used to calculate scores.

“We wouldn’t let it be zero,” Auxier said. “However, if someone did it with no warning … that would be a problem.”

Bianchetti does not feel the same sense of urgency.

“So far the prospect of executing quintuple jumps seems remote,” Bianchetti said in an email. “We are not aware of any quintuple jump correctly executed and full rotated having been done even in practice.

“Therefore there is not an urgent need to add quintuple jumps in the SOV. In any case it is something we will discuss in the near future.”

For now, then, everyone can continue to marvel at Malinin’s quad Axel. He said the jump has not become a burden and isn’t worried about fans being disappointed if he doesn’t attempt one, as Malinin has in all five of his competitions so far this season.

“Some people might think that (it is a burden),” he said. “My priority is focusing on what I’m doing in practice. I have been sticking with it, and I am planning to attempt it (in the free skate at nationals.)”

The irony is the risk on the jump seems greater than the reward, given the quad Axel’s surprisingly low base value as compared to its difficulty and uniqueness.

“I have always prided myself on looking for a challenge,” Malinin said.

At 12.5 points, the jump is worth just one point more than a four-revolution quad Lutz. Yet 23 men and women have been credited with a fully rotated quad Lutz a total of 228 times in international competition, according to skatingscores.com.

Until the SOV revision for the 2018-19 season, when no one had landed a quad Axel, it was worth 15.0. All quads had their base values lowered in 2018, but the Axel had the biggest percentage drop.

“It should definitely be worth more, and we will ask that be considered also,” Auxier said. “(A base value of) 12.5 doesn’t reflect the true difficulty of the jump.”

Bianchetti sees it differently. His perspective is affected by a general feeling many in the sport share that jump pyrotechnics have become too big a factor in determining results.

“As to the value of the quad Axel, the matter to change its value is not on the agenda at the moment,” Bianchetti wrote. “A discussion to make some changes on the value of the jumps should include a general evaluation on all the jumps, not only the quad Axel, to have a more correct proportion between the various jumps but taking also into consideration the fact that the weight of the jump elements in total is already too high with respect to the other not jumping elements and the components marks.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in some ways marking a new era in the sport, air live from San Jose, California, on NBC Sports, USA Network and Peacock.

After last February’s Olympics, U.S. figure skating saw its greatest turnover from one season to the next in more than 20 years.

Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the top two men last season, are not competing this season and may be done altogether. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell, the top two women, retired. As did the top ice dance couple of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, last year’s national pairs’ champions, also left the sport.

So, for the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships feature a reigning national champion in just one of the four disciplines.

Amid all that, U.S. skaters performed well in the fall Grand Prix Series and made the podium in all four disciplines at December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time. Note the absence of Russian skaters, banned from international events due to the war in Ukraine.

At nationals, skaters are vying for spots on the team — three per discipline — for March’s world championships in Japan.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old from Virginia, is the headliner after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple Axel, doing so at all four of his events this season. He ranks second in the world by best total score, a whopping 38.28 points ahead of the next American (Camden Pulkinen).

Jason Brown is the lone Olympian in the men’s field, competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Games.

Isabeau Levito, 15 and a reigning world junior champion like Malinin, took silver at the Grand Prix Final against the world’s other top skaters. She enters nationals with a best score this season 18.13 points better than the next American, Amber Glenn. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian coming back from foot and ankle injuries, is also a threat to gain one of the three women’s spots at worlds.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the lone defending national champions and will likely make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record.

Bates, who last year at 32 became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

In pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier return after missing nationals last year due to Frazier contracting COVID-19 the week of the event. Since, they posted the best U.S. pairs’ finish at an Olympics in 20 years, the first world title for a U.S. pair in 43 years and the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for a U.S. pair.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Thursday Pairs’ Short Program 3:30-5:45 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 6:30-9 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 7-9 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short Program 9:10 p.m.-12 a.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Short Program 10 p.m.-12 a.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Friday Men’s Short Program 4:10-7 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Short Program 5-7 p.m. USA Network
Women’s Free Skate 7:45-11 p.m. Peacock
Women’s Free Skate 8-11 p.m. NBC
Saturday Free Dance 1:45-4:30 p.m. Peacock
Free Dance 2:30-4:30 p.m. NBC
Pairs’ Free Skate 7:30-10 p.m. Peacock
Pairs’ Free Skate 8-10 p.m. USA Network
Sunday Men’s Free Skate 2:30-6 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Free Skate 3-6 p.m. NBC

*All NBC and USA Network broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.