A new coach and what she calls a 'new brain' have changed her approach to the sport, culminating in impressive return to competition in Indianapolis on Saturday.
But Saturday afternoon (27 February), when she mounted the balance beam in the final rotation of USA Gymnastics’ Winter Cup in Indianapolis, it was vintage Hernandez: cool, calm, collected. The poise and grace, the intricate touches that also won balance beam silver at the Games in Rio on full display.
Her performance would make it easy to forget all that Hernandez has been through since those Games that launched her to fame that included turns on ‘Dancing with Stars’ and as host of ‘American Ninja Warrior Junior.’
The 20-year-old moved from her native New Jersey to southern California in late 2018, to train for a chance at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 with Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang, who coached 2012 Olympic gold medallist Kyla Ross. Her coach at Rio 2016, Maggie Haney, is currently serving a five-year suspension for mental and emotional abuse, and Hernandez has been open about her former training situation.
“I felt that sharing my story could help others, or at least raise awareness to emotional and verbal abuse,” she wrote in an Instagram post last year.
“I think within the last couple of years I've gotten really into openly speaking about mental health and tackling it and expressing it publicly so that way it pulls the stigma away from it,” she said Saturday.
Her competitive return comes in an environment that couldn’t be more different. When Hernandez was struggling with an element on floor during the warm-up, Zhang told her to water down.
“I think Jenny was kind of on the fence [about doing the harder element], she saw that I was a little bit nervous and she was like, ‘No, I want you to have a good time. I want you to hit and I want you to have a good time,’” Hernandez told media afterwards. “She was hell-bent on making sure that I enjoyed myself in my first meet back.”
And she did. No one on Team USA has the presence Hernandez possesses on the floor exercise and her 2021 routine, set to a medley that includes Hamilton’s The Room Where it Happens, has all the personality for which Hernandez is known.
“I did feel genuine joy coming back out there and showing off this new routine,” said Hernandez of the exercise she choreographed and cut herself. “I just got to be myself, like how I am in practice. There was no pressure from [Jenny]. It was just pure joy and pure wanting me to be well today.”
"You get nervous either way because you care, not because you're not ready. It's all just a big mindset change. Now, I kind of look at it and I invite it. I know that the nerves are what make you great." - Laurie Hernandez on her new competitive mindset
Hernandez takes away much to be happy about in her first competitive outing in her return – including a fifth-place finish on the balance beam. Most importantly, perhaps, is what she referred to as her ‘new brain.’
“When I say a new brain, it's like just a completely different person,” Hernandez explained. “Maybe when I was 16, I'd go to compete and I'd feel nervous and I'd be like, ‘I'm not nervous. I'm fine’ because I equated nerves with me not being prepared.
“Of course, I learned now that's not true at all. You get nervous either way because you care, not because you're not ready,” she continued. “It's all just a big mindset change. Now, I kind of look at it and I invite it. I know that the nerves are what make you great.”
And she knows she’ll need to be great if she's to be one of the women that will represent the U.S. in Tokyo.
Though she only took part in two events in Indianapolis, Hernandez says she’s training on all four and expects to compete in them soon. She even hinted at new elements to come.
More than anything, though, Hernandez is focused on enjoying this second life in the sport.
“I was really nervous and then I felt really excited and almost like calm and composed on the equipment, which is not something I felt when I was 16,” she said. “So, I really enjoyed today.”
And after all that she’s been through, that’s what matters most.