KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Laurie Hernandez had only one year as an elite senior gymnast.
Sure, that year included the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where the then-16-year-old won a gold and silver medal, but for someone who dedicated much of her childhood to the sport, it was still not quite enough for Hernandez.
So after a two-year break from gymnastics to write books, compete on “Dancing with the Stars” and have a Barbie doll made in her likeness, among other post-Olympic ventures, Hernandez returned to full-time gymnastics training in September 2018 and is now training a full-time schedule with the hope of returning to a national team training camp as soon as November en route to ultimately making a second Olympic team next summer.
“Making the Olympic team, that’s definitely why I’m coming back, because I love it, I really am trying to make that team,” Hernandez, now 19, said Saturday from the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“But also it’s a success for me to just get out there and show that I took two years off and here I am coming back again. I genuinely, I’m here because I love the sport.”
Hernandez graduated to the senior level in 2016, and that summer she became the youngest member of the “Final Five” U.S. team that won team gold in Rio. She also won a silver medal on balance beam before stepping away to embrace new opportunities.
A successful comeback in U.S. women’s gymnastics isn’t unprecedented. As recently as last quad, 2012 Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman each took lengthy breaks from the sport before ultimately coming back to make another Olympic team in 2016.
Hernandez has some added challenges, though.
Both Douglas and Raisman returned to competition in the year before the Olympics, with each being sharp enough to make the 2015 world championships team to set up the Olympic year in 2016.
Both also returned to a five-woman Olympic team, whereas the 2020 teams only have four gymnasts. In addition to there being one fewer athlete, the new format also all but eliminates the possibility of making the team as a specialist.
Hernandez, who gained viral fame when cameras caught her mouthing “You got this” to herself before mounting the balance beam at the Rio Games, remains relentlessly positive.
“I am training all four events, and I do think it’s realistic to come back next year and do well,” she said.
A New Jersey native, Hernandez now trains at Gym-Max Gymnastics in Costa Mesa, California, under coaches Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang. She said she’s in the gym five hours a day, six days a week, and she’s all but given up her non-gymnastics endeavors for the time being, though she allows that she’s still able to fit an occasional photo or ad shoot in without having to miss any practice.
As far as her comeback, Hernandez said her balance beam and floor exercise skills returned the fastest, though she’s not yet ready to compete. She said she hopes to be ready for a national team training camp by the end of the year, with her eyes on November, and her coaches have been in touch with USA Gymnastics Women’s High-Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster about the logistics of how to do that.
If all goes as planned, she’d would then like to be selected for an international assignment.
“I would love to get some prior competition experience before going to championships next year,” she said.
Even if she never gets that far, though, she said she’s embracing the journey.
“I just really love the sport and taking those two years off was a great way to discover who I was outside of gymnastics,” she said. “I had just turned 16 in the Olympic year and we had so many different things happen like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and tour and books and all these other opportunities that I really just wanted to bask in that. But once things started to settle down I really wanted to come back to my roots, and discovering my passion for gymnastics, and somehow I love it more now than I did before.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.