Laurie Hernandez

When Laurie Hernandez winked at the Olympics

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Blink, and you may have missed one of the social-media-sensation moments of the Rio Olympics.

Laurie Hernandez, then 16, was the youngest woman on the U.S. Olympic team across all sports. She was about to start arguably the most important floor exercise routine of her life.

So, she winked.

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “I Got This,” a nod to what she told herself before her balance beam routine earlier that night. “So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment.”

The U.S., on its fourth and final rotation, already had the team gold all but locked up. Knowing she was nervous, Hernandez’s teammates confirmed to her that they were a few points ahead.

Then Hernandez heard the beep, and it was time to go. She was in the view of an out-of-bounds judge at the Rio Olympic Arena.

“Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink,” she wrote. “Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone [Biles] and Aly [Raisman] compete in their all-around finals and she said, ‘Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.’ I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, ‘Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.’ That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was ‘Oh my goodness.'”

Hernandez, a New Jersey native, finished the Olympics with a team gold and balance beam silver.

She took more than two years off before making a comeback in earnest last year, announcing she planned to return to competition this spring under new coaches in California. Now that’s on hold given the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.

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Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension

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Laurie Hernandez gave her first TV interview, while former coach Maggie Haney offered her first public comments, after Haney was banned eight years after verbal and emotional abuse of gymnasts.

“It’s a really big step for gymnasts and USA Gymnastics just to go ahead and do the right thing and make sure people know that kind of treatment isn’t OK. It’s not OK,” Hernandez said on TODAY on Monday while promoting the “Stronger than you think” initiative to help teens through mental health.

Hernandez said that the process that ended up suspending Haney took too long, about three and a half years after she first told her mom.

“I mean, the case was opened late 2019/early 2020,” she said. “In all that time, they could have prevented a lot of athletes from having to go through the same thing that I went through, but I’m just glad that we were able to do something about it.”

Haney, who coached Hernandez to Olympic gold and silver medals in Rio, issued a statement.

“My coaching techniques were at all times, well-intended; meant specifically to lead her to her personal goal of achieving Olympic gold,” Haney said, according to TODAY. “If the pursuit of excellence and the rigor of my coaching style has resulted in any harm to any gymnast that has been a part of my team, I am truly sorry.”

USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said the organization vows to do better.

“To respond more empathically, to resolve complaints more efficiently, and to be more vigilant,” she said in a statement last week. “We will keep improving this process until our athletes and our community can trust it. And we will keep working with our community to improve the culture within our sport, so that abuse like this is no longer tolerated.”

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Laurie Hernandez says Maggie Haney, now-banned coach, emotionally abused her

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Laurie Hernandez said now-banned coach Maggie Haney, who guided her to a 2016 Olympic gymnastics title, verbally and emotionally abused her leading up to the Rio Games. Hernandez said she developed eating disorders and depression as a result, according to The New York Times.

Haney was banned eight years by a USA Gymnastics independent hearing panel for violations including of an ethical code of conduct and safe sport policy, the federation announced Wednesday. Haney has not responded to a message seeking comment. Her attorney said she plans to appeal, according to reports.

“The toughest part about it was that there were no bruises or marks to show that it was real,” Hernandez said after the ban was announced, according to the Times. “It was all just so twisted that I thought it couldn’t be real.”

Haney coached Hernandez in New Jersey from her start in gymnastics, around age 5, through the Rio Olympics. Hernandez, the youngest U.S. female athlete across all sports in Rio at age 16, earned gold with the U.S. team and silver on the balance beam.

Hernandez told her mom about Haney’s conduct weeks after the Games. Her mom sent a complaint to USA Gymnastics, according to the Times.

Hernandez took a break from gymnastics and moved to California in 2018. She began training for a Tokyo Olympic bid in earnest last year with new coaches.

“The idea of sharing my story with the world feels extremely nerve wrecking and vulnerable,” was posted on Hernandez’s Instagram on Thursday in a thread that did not name Haney, “but after hearing positive results last night from the panel, I felt that sharing my story could help others, or at least raise awareness to emotional and verbal abuse.”