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Laurie Hernandez knows her run at this summer’s Olympic gymnastics team is a bit last minute, but the 19-year-old is confident in her ability to make it work.
“The beginning, the very beginning, was a little rough. As it should be,” Hernandez conceded in a phone call with TeamUSA.org last month. “But so far, so good.”
The youngest member of the “Final Five” U.S. women’s gymnastics team from Rio is the first to admit she’s not quite back to her best self, the catchword the U.S. women used to propel themselves to Olympic team gold four years ago in Brazil. But after two years of not training seriously, Hernandez is now laser focused on getting back into Olympic-level form.
She expected it to take time.
“If you lift a five-pound weight, then 10 pounds, 30 pounds, 50 pounds and then 100 pounds and then you don’t do anything for a couple of years and you come back, you can’t lift 100 pounds right away,” Hernandez said. “And that’s totally okay.”
Following her star-making turn at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where she took the balance beam silver medal in addition to team gold, Hernandez took time off to enjoy life, as well as the opportunities that came with the Olympic accolades. She won season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars” with partner Val Chmerkovskiy, crisscrossed the country on the 36-city tour of champions and co-hosted “American Ninja Warrior Junior.” Her autobiography, “I Got This,” a title based on the words she mouthed before beginning her Olympic routines, became a bestseller, as did a children’s book, “She’s Got This,” in which a young Laurie-like character conquers fears in gymnastics.
Things were coming at her so fast and furiously that Hernandez thought for a minute that she might be done with the sport.
“I think every athlete kind of has that ‘uh-oh, maybe this isn’t for me anymore,’ feeling,” she said.
She never wrote off the possibility of a comeback, though, even as some gymnastics pundits did.
“I had the thought of OK, I had trained for this my whole life and spent so much time doing this one thing,” she said. “I didn’t really have it in my head that I was done.”
Still, she decided to return in earnest late in 2018. It meant starting from scratch. Having split with her longtime coach after the Games, Hernandez needed to find a new coach and a new gym. A former teammate whose mom had landed a job in California wrote her about Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, where coaches Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang had coached Kyla Ross onto the 2012 Olympic team. Hernandez, who was looking in the same area, was encouraged to go scout it out.
She loved it immediately.
“It felt like home,” Hernandez said. “Jenny is such a sweetheart, Howie is incredible, and they’re such a power duo.”
She currently trains in the afternoons, five hours a day, six days a week.
“It’s really just all about gymnastics and all about training,” she said, “but also I’m a pretty big fan of not having morning workouts.”
Much of her work during the past 12 months has involved doing basics and conditioning in order to regain the fitness necessary to train harder skills. It’s a strategy that has allowed her to avoid injuries she might have incurred from trying too much too fast.
Along the way, Hernandez has been boosted by encouragement from teammates; Ross, now a senior at UCLA, stops by the gym on school breaks, and Aly Raisman, who made her own successful comeback after taking a year off post-London 2012, has been particularly supportive.
“I would be like, ‘Aly, I have no idea what I’m doing!’ and she’d be like, ‘No, it’s okay,’” Hernandez said.
Laurie Hernandez competes on the floor at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She’s now starting to piece together routines, including a new Latin-dance infused floor routine with elements of swing, cha-cha and salsa. She’s been working on vault and bars, and feels closest to 100 percent on beam.
Perhaps the biggest leap forward has come from attending two national team camps, held in November and January, where her progress has impressed high-performance women’s national team coordinator Tom Forster.
“I’ve known Laurie since she was 12 and coming to development camps, so I know how talented she is,” said Forster, who added he was “surprised” she waited so long to begin training again. “To take that much time off and try to come back in the sport is quite a challenge, and she’s done very well. (At the last two camps) I was very encouraged.”
Hernandez still has a ways to go, and both she and Forster know it.
“She’s not up to her skill level in Rio — she’s not there yet,” Forster added. “I think she is on some of the events, but I don’t think she is on all the events.”
Breaking into the core group of athletes challenging for the 2020 Olympic team, one of the deepest the U.S. has ever had, by Forster’s estimation, is the biggest challenge in front of her.
“What I told her from the beginning was that the routines that she used in 2016, they’re still competitive today — that’s how good she was,” Forster said. “The only thing is a couple of the rules have changed. There’s more variety on bars now. But if she can get back just what she had in 2016, she’ll be competitive.”
Hernandez isn’t sure when her next competition will be. She elected to not take part in the training camp in early March, with her sights set on a return to competition later in the year.
She’s most likely to take the competition floor for the first time at the U.S. Classic in Hartford, Connecticut, currently slated for late May. But whenever she next steps up, it will be when she and the national team staff are certain she’s got it again, and that’s enough for now.
A little last minute maybe, but “I feel like the timeline I’m on is perfect,” she said.