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Regaining Her Skills And Happy In Training, Laurie Hernandez Is Relishing Her Gap Year

By Blythe Lawrence | Sept. 17, 2020, 12 p.m. (ET)

Laurie Hernandez competes on the floor during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

 

Back in California after five months at home in New Jersey, Laurie Hernandez has received a warm welcome from the Golden State.

Maybe a little too warm, come to think of it: though the wildfires that have ravaged the west coast in recent weeks are not in her immediate vicinity, they are near enough for Hernandez to notice their effects.

At Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, Hernandez’s training base since she decided to make a serious commitment to making the 2020 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team two years ago, coaches Howie Liang and Jenny Zhang generally keep the gym’s big garage doors open during training sessions.

“The first couple days back the sky was orange,” Hernandez recalled. “I don’t know if the breathing or the air quality was that great at the time, but I know that a lot of places have it worse.”

“It could be worse” has been something of the mantra of 2020 for many athletes, including Hernandez, who returned to her apartment after practice one day in mid-March to get a phone call from the coaches she’d just left telling her that the gym was closing temporarily due to COVID-19. Suddenly stranded, Hernandez made the decision to hop a plane to the east coast and ride out the pandemic among her close-knit family. 

“And it was such a wonderful decision,” she said.

She found a temporary gymnastics home at Eastern National Academy gymnastics in Paramus, not far from her parents’ residence in Old Bridge Township. ENA coach Craig Zappa oversaw her day-to-day workouts while Liang and Zhang coordinated through video calls and text messages. 

Family support came in handy when, days after she arrived in New Jersey, the International Olympic Committee announced it was postponing the Tokyo Games for a year. Combined with Gym-Max’s shutdown, it was Hernandez’s second life-altering shock in the space of a week.

“To understand that it could be a possibility is one thing. To hear that it truly is getting delayed is another,” she said. “I was ready to go out and compete, just because I missed that feeling, and to have to wait another year at the time was daunting. It felt like a lot of pressure, but as the months have gone by I’ve realized that in terms of training for me it was a huge blessing.”

By her own admission, Hernandez returned to serious training late in the game, which in gymnastics is measured in four-year increments bookended by the Olympic Games. Though pleased with the progress she’d made after two years away from the sport post-Rio, the 20-year-old doesn’t deny that the extra training time has given her more time to upgrade her routines, fine-tune her technique and regain specific skills lost.

“Beam came back really easily. Floor was kind of hit or miss, but as time went on it was better. Vault we’re just trying to stay strong and be consistent, but bars, that’s the biggest one,” she said. 

Her hardest release move, a stalder into piked Tkatchev, has just been remastered, and Hernandez is elated.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to get that one back,” she said. “We’re going to get to try a bunch of new stuff that I haven’t competed before just because we had time.”

. I love seeing progress, I love being able to achieve it, to chase it, to get there, and they make me feel like I’m doing the right thing.

When those competitions will be remains up in the air. Hernandez attended the first and only national team camp of 2020 in Indianapolis in January, and so far another has not been planned. When she does compete next, nearly five years will have passed since the Rio, the last time she took part in a formal competition.

That’s the potential negative. The positive is that In the interim, Hernandez has gained maturity and knows her mind far better than she did in 2016. In April, Hernandez’s former coach Maggie Haney, who was with her in Rio, was suspended from coaching at any USA Gymnastics member club for the next eight years after several families filed complaints alleging verbal and emotional abuse. With Zhang and Liang, Hernandez, who testified during Haney’s hearing in February, has laid out a training plan that maximizes her potential without burning her out. 

“I notice that more hours doesn’t mean better gymnastics. We’re still training a lot, but we’re working smarter not harder, I think,” she said. “To be able to do quality over quantity —‘Hey, let’s get three really nice ones’ versus, ‘Let’s do 10’ —  that has been so beneficial.

“(At the January camp) we got some really nice results from it, and I’m proud of how that worked out. So that’s something that’s been working for me, making sure we’re tailoring our workouts every day to what my body’s willing to do and knowing when is the right time to push, especially during meet season.”

Despite her excellent results at the Olympics, including a gold medal with the “Final Five” U.S. women’s team and individual silver on the balance beam, Hernandez understands that nothing is a given, especially with a deeply talented U.S. team and one of the four Olympic team spots unofficially reserved for Simone Biles.

“Going (at) 20, 21 into high level gymnastics, I was worried about that, but then I was like, OK, we have a lot of girls who have completely crushed the game at a much higher age, and they’re killing it,” she said. “Being a little older now and understanding how my brain works, and having taken so much time out of gymnastics and then coming back into that environment, I feel like I have so much more to give into the sport and into what I do.” 

During the pandemic, Hernandez has found time for UCLA extension courses in acting and creative writing, and says she’s been bitten by the screenwriting bug. For the moment, Hollywood will have to wait: gymnastics, Hernandez’s first love, is still the top priority.

“It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place: just coming here and being able to have just such an open communication line with my coaches,” she said. “We connect in a way that is really important to my progress in gymnastics. I love seeing progress, I love being able to achieve it, to chase it, to get there, and they make me feel like I’m doing the right thing.”

Blythe Lawrence

Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Laurie Hernandez