It took Laurie Hernandez two years away from gymnastics to find her way back.
After winning team gold and balance beam silver at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the superstar American gymnast took every opportunity that came her way: a winning turn on Dancing with the Stars, hosting American Ninja Warrior Junior, and a role in the animated Nickelodeon series Middle School Moguls.
It was the spoils of her charming and confident performances that captivated her home country – and the world – but also the experience that brought her love for the sport back into focus.
“From 5 to 16, I had just done one thing, I had just done gymnastics, I had homeschooled for it and done everything [for it],” Hernandez told Olympic Channel Monday during interviews at a USA Gymnastics national team camp in Indianapolis.
“So taking that two year break, I got to branch out and see what I loved and what I wanted to do, and all that I was outside of the sport, only to realize that I loved it so much that I had to come back to it.”
The 19-year-old resumed full-time training in the fall 2018, moving across the country from her New Jersey home to Los Angeles to work with Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang, coaches of 2012 Olympic champion Kyla Ross.
Returning to Olympic gold medal-winning form hasn’t been easy and she has yet to make a competitive appearance. Hernandez describes the process as similar to having lifted weights for years, then suddenly stopping.
“You can't just lift up a 200 pound weight, you're gonna pull something,” she said. “Your arm is going to fall off. You have to go back down to five and then go back to seven and then go up to ten and then just keep working your way up.
“So coming back and just conditioning for months, that was awful,” she said with a laugh. “Nobody likes that.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been rewards though.
“The best part about it is when - and my coaches have been really good with this - is pacing you, and then telling you, OK, you're ready to throw all the stuff that you threw in 2016,” said Hernandez.
'I got a good feeling about it'
Hernandez is keenly aware that her return to the sport is being watched closely. She routinely posts clips of her training on social media, instantly sending the online gymnastics community known as ‘the gymternet’ into analysis mode.
She feels that she could compete two events – balance beam and floor exercise – today. She’s working double-twisting Yurchenkos but admitted that she’s struggled the most with getting her routine back on the uneven bars.
Her absence from competition post-Rio has left some wondering if the 2015 U.S. junior champion can find her form in time for a second Olympic appearance.
She loves that.
“Another fun thing for me is like watching people freak out because they think I'm coming back too late,” Hernandez, who is targeting May’s U.S. Classic as her return date, said Monday.
“There's a lot of people not expecting it to work out, but that's what's fun for me because I got a good feeling about it.”
She also knows that this time around, no matter what happens in the next few months, she’ll be at peace.
“I know a lot of people are kind of panicking because it's a late comeback,” said Hernandez. “But for me, like this is my story. This is just how it worked out, and I think the timeline is perfect.”