Laurie Hernandez’s attempt to return to the Olympic Games ended suddenly.
The 2016 Olympic artistic gymnastics champion was pulling for a double pike dismount off the balance beam at June’s 2021 U.S. Championships. When she tried to open for the landing, her legs came down split, one completely straight. She hyper-extended her knee, resulting in a bone bruise, fluid, a cyst, and a torn meniscus.
She withdrew from the remainder of the competition.
It wasn’t the ending she’d dreamt of, that was clear from the moment it happened, of course, but it took a social media post from a magazine to bring it into full focus.
“I'm really proud of the comeback,” Hernandez told Olympics.com during an interview at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the Tokyo 2020 Games. “I was on Twitter the other day, and a magazine had a headline like ‘Laurie Hernandez' comeback failed.’ And I was like, ‘OK, whoa there, it didn't work out. But, that's a little aggressive.’”
“I remember it first happening and then kind of calling my inner circle and being like, ‘I feel like I failed.’ But it took somebody else saying it for me to be like, ‘No, that wasn't it at all. This was very much so a success.
"I wanted to do it like my way, with a new support system and a new inner circle, and new people, and see how that worked, and I enjoyed it, Hernandez continued. "I had a good time coming back. I did so many skills that I would have never thought to have done before, I did new skills that have never been done before and things like that, so it definitely was a big success."
A mental reset for the American gymnast
Her words are further proof that her return to the sport was about so much more than trying to make a return trip to the Olympics at the Tokyo Games, starting later in July.
It was about once again finding love in a sport that she has dedicated so much of her life to, finding herself as a young adult, and showing all of it to the world.
After winning team gold and balance beam silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Hernandez stepped aside from full-time training, enjoying the whirlwind of Olympic success that included a winning turn on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and seemingly endless other appearances.
But eventually it caught up to her.
“I was on a flight with my agent, and she was like, ‘I noticed that you put on this front for other people and then you come back and it kind of switches. I think you're depressed.’ I remember sitting there and being like, ‘OK, hang on there, hold your horses. That’s a really aggressive statement. I don't think so,” said Hernandez. “And, then, we just had a whole conversation on this flight, and by the end of it, I was kind of in tears and I was like, so it turns out you're right.”
When she got home, her mental health journey began. She spoke with her ‘inner circle’ about starting therapy, and then did. Something she continues today.
She’s been open about the journey online and in interviews, hoping to help de-stigmatize mental health conversations.
“I wish a little me was following an Instagram account that openly talked about [mental health] and still did really cool things, and also talked about it, like, it was a both. It coexisted with everything, as it should,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez helping to change the sport for good
Hernandez has also been open about emotional and psychological abuse she suffered while training for Rio with her former coach, Maggie Haney. Haney is currently serving a five-year suspension from USA Gymnastics.
In early 2020, the 21-year-old went public with her story in a post on Instagram, after conversations with Olympic teammate Aly Raisman.
“I remember being really nervous about it, and calling Aly, and bawling, and being like, ‘Is this a bad idea? Should I do it?” she said.
By then, Hernandez had moved cross country, from her native New Jersey to California, to work with new coaches Jenny Zhao and Howie Liang. The husband and wife coaching duo, who guided Kyla Ross to the 2012 Olympics, were a total 180 in style for Hernandez.
The Instagram post was years in the making, a validation of feelings she had at the time. She says she wishes her younger self had trusted her instinct.
What she has shared online is all part of something more meaningful than any gold medal could ever be. It’s about changing the sport she loves once again and sending a message to all the young athletes dreaming of one day being like Laurie Hernandez.
“Just because you’re young, just because this is kind of the only environment that you know, doesn’t mean that you don’t anything,” she said of her message to her younger self, which resonates with what she'd tell young athletes. “So, trust yourself.”