The Olympic gold medallist is rediscovering her love for the sport after verbal abuse from her former coach led to her stepping away
When times have been hard and Laurie Hernandez found herself questioning why she decided to return to the pounding and perfectionism of elite gymnastics, one of the memories that has kept her moving forward was the time she wanted to let it go.
It was at the beginning of 2016 as the Olympics rounded into view that her frustration with injuries led her to consider stopping. She stepped away for around three days. As she began training for her comeback two years ago, it became a constant point of reference during her older brother’s motivational speeches: “He was like: ‘You’re two years out! It’s gonna make sense that you want to quit now when at Olympic level you wanted to stop. You’ve just gotta hang in there.’”
Hanging in there worked well enough the first time. At 16 years old, Hernandez became the first Latina US gymnast to qualify for the Olympics where she won a team gold medal and a silver on the balance beam. Her sheer joy and charisma marked her as the breakout star in Rio and immediately opened doors for her in the entertainment industry but it also belied her reality.
Hernandez’s coach, Maggie Haney, was found in April to have subjected her to sustained emotional and verbal abuse throughout their time together. The experiences led Hernandez to suffer from depression, panic attacks and disordered eating. This year Haney was banned from coaching by USA Gymnastics for eight years, which was reduced to five years in December due to a procedural error during the hearing.
Those formative experiences in gymnastics are a large part of why Hernandez stayed away from gymnastics for two years. She believed that she hated gymnastics and it took a long time for her to unpack her true feelings, separating her resentment towards the abuse she received from the sport she still loved. “I knew that this sport felt like home, but also something was very unsettling with the idea of coming back,” she says.
Such was the depth of her apathy towards gymnastics, when Hernandez finally decided that she wanted to return in 2018 it was a great surprise even to her own parents. She soon began working with Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang, the well regarded former coaches of Kyla Ross, moving across the country from her home in New Jersey to Southern California. She says that their positive, healthy environment has been transformative. “Before, when I was 16, I wasn’t worried about being perfect. I was worried about repercussions and making sure I was doing the right thing to avoid those things. Whereas now I’m just here with the gymnastics. That’s it.”
Should the Olympics take place, a silver lining of the pandemic for Hernandez is the simple value of time. Two years of preparation is an age in most sports, but in gymnastics it is nothing. She returned late and she knew it. Although she was progressing well ahead of a return to competition and she says her routines were ready by March, there were some difficult skills that she simply did not have time to work on. She was not necessarily showing everything that she had.
Before, I was worried about repercussions. Now I'm just here with the gymnastics
“Before, we were just trying to get all these old skills back and piece them together. It’s like now we’ve gotten to just play a little bit and there’s that respark, that joy of just being able to physically test yourself. It’s been wonderful,” she says.
An example is the double layout, the difficult tumbling pass that opened her floor routine and set the tone in Rio. She had decided to move forward without it this year, but she began to train it when she returned to the gym after lockdown. By November, the skill was plastered on her Instagram. Pushing herself further has provided an even greater boost than she anticipated.
“I remember first coming back, looking at my coaches and feeling really insecure about my body and just how much had changed,” she says. “In 2016, it was like here is this barely just turned 16 year old girl who hasn’t gone through puberty yet, who’s at an Olympic weight and at the time, struggling with food. Soon afterwards, it was like going through puberty and just becoming who I’m supposed to be and my body changing. I was really insecure about all of that.”
Her coaches made it clear that puberty is no impediment and her progress has reinforced to her that at 20 she is in the best shape of her life. “[They said]: ‘Hey, this extra oomph that you have? We’re going to turn it into muscle and you’re gonna be so powerful because you have it. It’s not gonna stop you. It’s gonna make you better.’ They drilled it into my brain and they still do it now. I feel like in doing that double layout, it was very telling because it felt very easy.”
Their approach is an obvious, stark contrast to the way that Hernandez was treated by her previous coach who would frequently reference her weight. “I felt I was spoiled for wanting things to be a certain way,” she says. “An ideal environment – I wasn’t sure that it existed. I was seeing how [other friends] were being treated and I was like: ‘That’s worse, I got it really good.’ It felt like too much to ask for if I wanted it to be better than it was before. Whereas now it just is.”
Returning to the gym has instead been challenging in different ways. Hernandez has had to face the demons she had ignored and pushed away for two years, and now speaks openly after holding so much in for so long. In February, when she testified at her former coach’s hearing, the experience rattled her, disrupted her training and she pulled out of a national training camp. But she came back once more.
“There’s a little kid in me that is always going to be scared about it,” she says. “Speaking about it is terrifying, but I also remember so many people coming out on social media and seeing so many people saying: ‘Hey, that same thing happened to me, I thought it was normal. I thought I didn’t have a reason to be hurt by this. But you came out and explained this.’ And I just feel validated and seen.”