It's been more than four years since Laurie Hernandez, 20, stepped onto the Olympics scene.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the New Jersey-native gymnast became part of Team USA's "Final Five" squad with Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian. The crew bit into their gold medals after claiming the women's gymnastics team title that year. Hernandez won the individual silver medal in the balance beam.
Hernandez, who made history as the first Latina gymnast to represent Team USA since 2004, took two years off from competitive gymnastics after the Rio Games to give herself a mental and physical break. Shortly after Rio, Hernandez won ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" with professional dancer Val Chmerkovskiy. Additionally, she co-hosted the inaugural season of NBC's "American Ninja Warrior Junior" and published two books. Returning to the mat in 2018, Hernandez set her sights on the Tokyo Olympics with a newfound passion for the sport.
This spring, after the Olympics postponement, Hernandez went public for the first time about the emotional abuse she endured while training with longtime coach Maggie Haney. In April, after two months of hearings, USA Gymnastics suspended Haney for eight years for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. Hernandez, who testified during the hearings, spoke out about how Haney, who coached her for the 2016 Olympics, diminished her love for the sport and greatly jeopardized her mental health.
Hernandez talked with espnW about how the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponement allowed her to show up for herself in new ways and why her relationship with gymnastics has changed for the better.
This has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics:
"At first, I was anxious about it, because that's just an extra year of the unknown, and that scared me. I think that scared a lot of the other athletes, too. For a lot of us, there was some panicking, 'Are we going to lose sponsors? Is that something that we need to be worrying about?' A lot of athletes' concerns were like, 'OK, if I'm in my sport for another year, financially, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to stick with that. I didn't account for that.'
"Something awesome about being a Toyota ambassador is that as soon as they heard the Olympics were postponed, they called all of us and made sure we knew we were safe, and we were good and that they were hanging in for the long run. And that was comforting, especially in a time where everything was just chaotic. That's the only thing that's been consistent with this year is just that everything is changing, and I think having a steady foot in the ground has been helpful."
On working toward the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics:
"I'm currently back in California, in Orange County. I was training at Eastern National Academy (ENA) gym when I was back in New Jersey for almost six months during the COVID-19 pandemic. They let me come in and train. And that's been a godsend because without that, I wouldn't have been training for at least a little less than six months. That would have put a really big dent in my career for the upcoming year, so being able to train there was so important. But now I'm training five to six days a week.
"What's interesting is that I actually do less hours now than I did growing up. And it makes sense. Growing up, you want to have that time to develop all of your skills, and you need the extra repetition. You need the extra time. Now it's like we're just trying to gain that muscle memory back, which most of it we've gotten back. I feel like we've made so much progress within the last couple of years being able to do that."
On going public with her former coach's emotional abuse during training:
"It was really tough at first. We had initially done the hearing in early February of this year, and that was right after a training camp that we had done. And this case was opened on an Olympic year, and it was really hard to deal with because it was something that I was talking about in therapy. ... Just training and doing gymnastics-related things sometimes can be really triggering, especially when you've spent two years away from the sport, and then you start to process all of it. It's not like it was a taboo subject or that I had ignored it. However, still having to pull it apart at a time where mentally, I want to be the strongest I could be, especially during an Olympic year and peak at a certain time, to have something like that opened up was really difficult, and it made training pretty harsh.
"But then again, to see results and see that something was done about it -- it's showing others that this behavior is not OK ... I think that was really important, and I found this window of opportunity to share my story because I know teammates who have had the same thing. I know people who, in my eyes, have had it worse, and I know that I'm not the only one, especially in the gymnastics community. And I also knew that by sharing that story, it's signaling to others that this is wrong. This kind of environment and treatment is not OK for anybody, especially for minors and for kids.
"A huge weight was lifted off my chest. Now my relationship with training has been awesome in this sense that I didn't realize how much what had happened in the past was weighing on me and how much it affected practice. And now I can come in and just be myself. It feels good."
On the power of a support system:
"My parents and siblings are my support system. They've been riding with me since day one, since before everything. We've grown even stronger and closer this year. I went to New Jersey at the start of the pandemic, where my family is, and it was just wonderful to physically connect with them in a time that I wasn't supposed to have. I was home for a little less than six months, and I'm typically in California. I've had a lot of little silver linings in this year."
On the perks of social media:
"I think social media is a good connector and bridge for us [athletes] to the others around the globe. Especially for Gen Z, when we're coming out with content, there's always a little bit of truth to it -- in the sense that maybe it's talking about mental health or voting, but there's still something in there that makes you laugh and think hard on it. That's why a lot of people are like, 'Ah, Gen Z's sense of humor is a little different. The language is a little different.'"
On the importance of voting:
"I want to help get people out to vote. It's about sharing on social media how I feel about it, and hopefully, people will hop on the bandwagon. It's all about getting people to vote and making sure that they're exercising that right -- especially if you're a woman, or like me, a woman of color. We weren't always allowed to vote if you look back at it. Just get out there. Get out and vote. We have to speak up. That's my biggest thing."
On embracing change and staying positive:
"We're all in a global pandemic together. This is terrifying, but the fact that we are in it together, and we're acknowledging it, and we're talking about it, I think, has been very important for all of us. It's important to understand that this is not a productivity contest. The world's on fire right now. Checking in with yourself and with your friends is the most important part.
"I think everybody can relate that every day is up and down. It doesn't feel consistent. Getting really in tune with yourself and the things that you need can be uncomfortable. This year has been a giant mirror. You have to make sure that you're taking care of yourself because every day is different. Some days are really, really good, and some days are really, really not good. And making sure that you can show up for yourself is so important."