U.S. gymnast Laurie Hernandez hopes to serve as an example off the mat

The Rio Olympic gymnastics champion champion shared her stories of abuse under her former coach in May

By Scott Bregman

With the Tokyo Olympic Games postponed, 2016 Olympic gold and silver medallist Laurie Hernandez didn’t get a second chance at gymnastics glory this season.

Instead, what she’s accomplished reaches far beyond her megawatt talent. Hernandez came forward to say that she had suffered emotional and verbal abuse under her former coach, Maggie Haney. Haney was later suspended from USA Gymnastics for eight years.

“I found this window of opportunity to share my story because I know teammates who have had the same thing,” Hernandez told ESPN. “I know people who, in my eyes, have had it worse, and I know that I'm not the only one, especially in the gymnastics community. And I also knew that by sharing that story, it's signaling to others that this is wrong. This kind of environment and treatment is not OK for anybody, especially for minors and for kids.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

The New Jersey-native has been open about going to therapy to work through her abuse and that training, even as she targets Tokyo 2020 with a regimen that includes workouts up to six days a week, can be triggering.

"It was really tough at first,” said Hernandez. “It's not like it was a taboo subject or that I had ignored it. However, still having to pull it apart at a time where mentally, I want to be the strongest I could be, especially during an Olympic year and peak at a certain time, to have something like that opened up was really difficult, and it made training pretty harsh.”

Feeling better

Things have gotten better, though, she says as she’s settled back into her day-to-day at Gym-Max in Orange County, California, under the tutelage of Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang who helped guide Kyla Ross to 2012 gold.

"A huge weight was lifted off my chest. Now my relationship with training has been awesome in this sense that I didn't realise how much what had happened in the past was weighing on me and how much it affected practice,” Hernandez said. “And now I can come in and just be myself. It feels good."

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hernandez headed home to New Jersey to be with her family. There, she ended up training at Eastern National Academy for nearly six months.

“They let me come in and train. And that's been a godsend because without that, I wouldn't have been training for at least a little less than six months,” she explained. “That would have put a really big dent in my career for the upcoming year, so being able to train there was so important. But now I'm training five to six days a week.”

That training journey has been something Hernandez has seemed to enjoy sharing with her fans. Last week, she gave fans a five second peek at her new floor routine that garnered more than 40,000 views on Twitter. She also posted a video of herself performing a full-twisting double back dismount off the uneven bars, the same dismount she used at Rio 2016 with the caption, “stay tuned for a happy dance!!”

Hernandez has also used her massive social media followings to promote diversity and the importance of voting, further evidence of her newfound voice.

"I want to help get people out to vote. It's all about getting people to vote and making sure that they're exercising that right -- especially if you're a woman, or like me, a woman of colour,” she said in her interview with ESPN. “We weren't always allowed to vote if you look back at it. Just get out there. Get out and vote.

“We have to speak up. That's my biggest thing."

And maybe her most impressive thing, too.