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Comeback didn't get Laurie Hernandez to another Olympics – but it brought her peace

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Laurie Hernandez’s left knee was so heavily taped she worried she wouldn’t be able to get out of her warm-ups in time, and she couldn’t take more than a step or two without her knee giving out and hyperextending.

Maybe, coach Jenny Zhang suggested, she should scratch.

Making the Olympic team was what sent Hernandez clear across the country to train, spending the past three years apart from her family. But it wasn’t the only thing. She wanted to prove she could do this, on her terms, and heal the deep scars that had been left by more than a decade of verbal and emotional abuse.

“I was like, ‘Jenny, I have a really weird feeling this is going to be my last routine for the season, just let me do it,’” Hernandez told USA TODAY Sports. “She was like, ‘You know it’s not going to count for anything except for you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough.’”

Hernandez performs in the floor exercise during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021.

Hernandez performs in the floor exercise during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021.
Darron Cummings, AP

That balance beam routine at the national championships on June 4 is likely to be the last of the Olympic gold and silver medalist’s elite career.

Hernandez did not petition to go to the Olympic trials at the end of the month because she knew her knee wouldn’t be ready – “It’s a little better, but even now I take a couple of steps and it’ll lock out” – and she had already ruled out the world championships because she’ll be on Simone Biles’ tour.

And while the Paris Olympics are just three years away and Hernandez is only 21 – her birthday was Wednesday – the thought of that is simply too overwhelming right now. She also wants to go to college and pursue acting, and is already applying to schools in the hopes of starting in the spring or fall of next year.

Carnegie-Mellon, Columbia, Northwestern and Southern California are all on the list, though NYU is her first choice.

It’s certainly not the ending Hernandez envisioned, and she admits to feeling like “human soggy bread” right now. But she can also live with it, because she is coming away with something even more precious than those medals from Rio.

“It’s just been a really big reminder that, if I’m doing anything, it has to be for me,” Hernandez said. “It cannot be to beat anyone. Or do it because it’ll make other people happy or do it because I feel pressure from other people or from myself. It has to be purely because I think I’ll enjoy it, or a certain result and journey might make me feel really good.

“Things like this happen, unfortunately, to a lot of people and it’s not just in the gymnastics world. It’s many sports, it’s many jobs and hobbies,” she said. “Sometimes things just happen and it’s really, really irritating. So it was a reminder that this second time around was purely just for me.”

The revelations after Rio that former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State physician Larry Nassar had sexually abused hundreds of young girls and women also laid bare the toxic culture in the sport that had allowed him to go undetected for so long. Specifically, the harsh conditions Martha Karolyi had imposed at national team training camps and international assignments.

But the harm being done at local gyms, by personal coaches, was just as damaging, and it was Hernandez who helped bring that to light.

Bubbly and personable, she was one of the breakout stars of the Rio Games. She made the rounds of the red carpets when she returned, and won “Dancing with the Stars.” There was little talk of her going back to the gym, which wasn’t unusual for athletes who are able to capitalize on their Olympic success.

Hernandez during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021

Hernandez during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021
Marc Lebryk, USA TODAY Sports

What few knew was that Hernandez couldn’t go back. Even after she relocated to Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, Calif., she was so traumatized by the abuse of her former coach, Maggie Haney, that doing certain skills or sometimes just entering the gym triggered panic attacks.

“That was why the comeback was so late! I thought I hated (gymnastics). I really, genuinely thought I hated it,” Hernandez said. “Turns out, the environment just really sucked. Gymnastics is good and wholesome and fun when it’s in the right hands.

“Being at Gym-Max was just really nurturing, and there was a lot of unlearning that had to happen that I could not have done by myself.”

USA Gymnastics suspended Haney in April 2020 for eight years, reduced to five years after she appealed, in part because of testimony by Hernandez and Riley McCusker. In an Instagram post after the decision, Hernandez for the first time spoke publicly of being yelled at and belittled, and the toll it had taken.  

“A friend of mine made a point that I think about a lot. Which is, when you’re a kid and you’re doing gymnastics, you do a skill and you immediately turn to your coach and go, ‘OK, what did you think? How do you feel about that? Do you think it was good?’” Hernandez said. “You never ask yourself, ‘Did that feel good to me?’ Unfortunately, when you’re learning, that opinion becomes kind of moot unless you really know what you’re doing because you need somebody to teach you.

“And so then, if you’re in the same place long enough and (you start) young enough, that leads into everything else. ‘What do you think? I want your validation. I want your approval,’” she said. “That’s kind of what we were taught to do. 

“I don’t have all the answers,” Hernandez added. “I think as time goes on, there’ll be a groove that is found and there is a healthy balance found between being an extreme perfectionist from the coaches’ point of view and then also allowing breathing room for the athletes.”

MORE: Hernandez accomplishes what she wanted in first meet since Rio Olympics

OLYMPICS: Hernandez is ‘Changing the Game’ by opening up and embracing her emotions

Hernandez was praised for her courage in speaking out, and the willingness of a popular and decorated Olympian to speak out emboldened other women to come forward. It’s all still too fresh for Hernandez to fully appreciate the impact she’s had and, even now, she sometimes questions whether she did the right thing.

But she and McCusker were grouped together for training at nationals, and seeing the difference in her former teammate brought her joy.

“She’s thriving, and you see her become more consistent and strong and mentally excited and wanting to get out there,” Hernandez said. “We did that. It wasn’t a me thing, we did that. There was a whole group of people that were part of this, and it was a really good thing that we did.”

Hernandez acknowledges she was hurt by Twitter trolls and skeptics, who sniped that her comeback was a publicity stunt or a means of attracting sponsors. Someone even suggested she had deliberately hurt herself Sunday to give herself an out.

Making the team would have been the ultimate clapback, and Hernandez admits not getting that satisfaction made her knee injury that much more painful.

But she knows in her heart what she did and what she sacrificed. And while it might not have brought her to another Olympics, it has brought her peace.

“There’s that quote that you can’t heal in the same place that hurt you. OK, I’ll just go to a different place (geographically)! Clearly that’s not what they meant,” Hernandez said, chuckling. “There were a lot of times, mentally and emotionally, I was like, ‘This is too hard I can’t do it.’ I’m really proud I stuck through it.

“The gym I chose and the location and skills that I chose to do and the way I chose to do it, it was all done in the way I wanted it to happen,” she said. “I’m really proud of that. Because it also shows me, maybe this didn’t work out, but I got really far with my way of things.”

This was for her. And that’s good enough.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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