Alexa Moreno: From being bullied to making history for Mexican gymnastics

La gimnasta mexicana consiguió meterse a la final de salto como la octava mejor en la ronda eliminatoria. (Imagen por Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
La gimnasta mexicana consiguió meterse a la final de salto como la octava mejor en la ronda eliminatoria. (Imagen por Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Alexa Moreno suffered abuse on social media during the Rio 2016 Olympics, but now it’s her great talent they talk about. She made history for Mexico, winning a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships and now she’s aiming for the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Games, in 2021.

Alexa Moreno remembers vividly the moment she passed through the curtain that led to the stage she would perform on at her first Olympics. “In that moment, everything feels different,” she said when talking about Rio 2016. It was the moment she finally felt that the Games were real.

She just had to go with the flow.

But she also remembers how could she not go just with the flow. The wave of humiliating comments on social media. People who considered that her body did not fit the prototype of a gymnast.

Her answer has always been the same: it was very unpleasant, but she refused to give it more thought than it deserved. The things people in the world of gymnastics had to say were far more important and, above all, the thoughts of those who came along with her on her journey.

On the floor, she was even more emphatic: after a brief hiatus to resume her studies, she returned to gymmastics in 2018 and, just nine months into her comeback, she became the first Mexican woman in history to claim a World Championships medal.

After winning the bronze medal on vault in Doha, Alexa Moreno returned to the final in 2019, a feat that cemented her status among the elite and sealed her presence at Tokyo 2020. These Olympics will be a dream for her, as a self-confessed enthusiast of Asian culture.

"I love Asian culture. I don't know why, but since I was little it caught my attention. I suppose that because it was so different from what I know, from what I was more used to, I wanted to know more about these cultures,” she explained in an interview with Tokyo 2020.

She loves K-dramas, Japanese anime series (Fullmetal Alchemist is one of her favourites) and she is a big fan of the K-pop band EXO. She even studied Japanese for a time, until other obligations got in the way. But some of what she learned remains. “I know enough to get by!” she laughs.

The pride of representing Mexico

How did you get your start in gymnastics?

I started when I was three years old. Getting into sports was my mum's idea. She wanted me to get tired, because I was always jumping around and going to places I shouldn't.

How do you go from having a hobby to being an elite athlete? And how do you process it being so young?

It is not that hard, because everything is so gradual. Suddenly you get to a competition that is like 'Boom!'. Everything is bigger, the stage is bigger... But I like to compete, it gives me a certain adrenaline shock. It excites me.

But the first few times, it must have been difficult to manage.

In the beginning, the pressure of training with other countries that you always thought were very big, the very best... It was complicated. You have to work to stay focused and not be blinded. These are very mental changes and you need to work a lot with the psychologist to deal with them. [Competing] in my country helped me train my mind a lot. And then when you start to win internationally, you feel more the weight of your flag, you feel more pride. Especially when standing on a podium and seeing your flag next to others.

And how does one prepare to compete against Simone Biles?

It’s hard for all of us. We see her there standing there and she amazes us with every new move she performs. She has incredible talent. She is a gymnastics icon the likes we had never seen. And now we only have the silver and bronze medals to fight for! [laughs]. But, more seriously, everything can happen at the Olympics, as in every other final. You can never take anything for granted, although it will be very hard. Seeing Biles motivates us to try more daring things to some extent, because it is so hard to reach that level. I think she makes us want to keep improving, keep evolving, just to not fall that far behind.

An Olympic debut with lights and a shadow

In 2011 you qualified for your first vault final at a Gymnastics World Championship, and returned there again in 2014 and 2015. When did you begin to imagine yourself at the Olympics?

When I qualified! I wanted to be there and, since I always had to train so hard to qualify, I only believed it when they said to me, ‘You’ve done it. You got your ticket’. In fact, the Olympic test event was in Rio, and up until we got back there for the Olympics I couldn't quite get a grasp on it.

How did it feel when you finally saw yourself there?

It was like a relief, like saying, ‘I've gotten this far, I just have to do what I know and enjoy the moment.’ There wasn’t much more you could do. You had already done your work training, so let it be whatever it had to be. It felt like a relief, like letting myself go.

You had to live through a very unpleasant experience in Rio 2016. What did it mean to you?

The first thing was realising the amount of coverage the Olympic Games have. It was a world of people. Never in my life had I thought it would be like this. I had competed internationally for six years and it hardly occurred to them to say, 'Oh, she exists!'. It was then that I understood the dimensions of the Games.

And secondly, to realise that there were many people behind me who were supporting me. In the end, I was convinced that I had done a good job, that I had done better than we had been expected, that I had done well in the competition. That was what mattered.

Getting back to gymnastics and making history

You returned in early 2018 and, in a matter of a few months, you won the bronze medal at the World Championships, a first for a Mexican gymnast. How was it possible?

I gave it my all! The first few months were difficult for me, but after a while I started seeing gymnastics in a different way, as if I had a little more control. In my mind I saw everything more clearly. Soon I rediscovered the things I had done during the previous years. And then it was, more than anything, polishing up on the details for the World Championship.

Did you expect a result like that?

The truth is that I had no specific expectations. My goal was to qualify for a world final again, but once I got there it was like, 'well, whatever comes out of this is fine. If it’s nothing, so be it'. Not even a year had passed since my return. I didn't feel any pressure. It was competing for the sake of it. And I think that helped me a lot.

But in 2019 you had more expectations?

Yes, having that pressure when you are competing for a medal is a different thing, and that’s what happened to me the following year. I was third in the qualifying round and I said to myself, ‘Oh! Is this serious?’. I had never competed in a final with that in mind. That had never happened to me and I lacked the experience.

A dream Olympics

Your coach is Alfredo Hueto, a Spanish coach that worked with Gervasio Deferr, a two-time Olympic Champion in vault. How did this collaboration start and how is it working out?

I started working with him around early 2015. He brought a different mindset. We shared similar goals. He is very focused on perfecting the movements. It's all about fine-tuning the smallest details, trying to polish them. Until then I had focused on increasing the difficulty of the exercises, but that other aspect was not so present. In that regard, I have come a long way.

That experience he has brought, does it make you feel more confident?

His experience is also valuable to me when it comes to international competition. It shows in his face. He is unfazed by the pressure, or maybe he isn’t! But he doesn't show it, which is the important thing. And that makes me more confident when I'm there, because I am a person who can get a bit overexcited and sometimes I may need to lower a gear or two and just do what I already know how to do. And his presence has worked for me.

After this difficult period of time, how do you face the Tokyo 2020 Games? How do you expect them to be?

The truth is, I saw them as my dream Olympics, because Japan is one of my favourite countries and I'm feeling 100 per cent. So let’s think that they will be. I think everything is going to be very well organised. It will be a very controlled environment. When there is good organisation, everything goes quite well and you can focus on enjoying the moment.

We talked about Simone Biles as a global icon. Do you think you are also an icon for your country, a role model for the children that will follow you?

I hope so. Sometimes they say things like that to me and it gives me great joy, because I feel like I'm leaving something for those who come after. This is not only about competing, but also about leaving a mark, transcending my country's sport. I hope I'm helping, in some way, to make it clear that Mexico exists in gymnastics. That those who come after are not complete strangers at first and that they give them the attention they deserve. There are high-level gymnasts in Latin America and I hope they feel motivated.