Laurie Hernandez, the bubbly five-foot gymnast and youngest U.S. woman to compete in the Rio Olympics, retired with a gold medal in 2016. Why wouldn’t she? In a sport with a notoriously short lifespan, she’d snagged her spot at the first opportunity (the Olympics were her first major international meet), did her job (she brought home a silver medal for her performance on beam and, alongside Simone Biles, helped the Final Five bring home gold) and walked away on top. It was time for Hernandez, just 16, to bask in her well-earned glory.
“After 2016, I didn’t really want to do gymnastics. There were just all these opportunities that were coming and I grabbed them because I wanted them,” she says. She became the youngest competitor to ever win Dancing with the Stars and wrote, not one, but two New York Times bestselling books. “There was so much life experience outside of the sport that I was being offered,” she says. “I was like, yes, put me in, that’s what I want.”
She also began to process the toll gymnastics had taken on her. While she was grabbing opportunities to define herself outside of gymnastics, the sport was in the midst of a reckoning over a documented culture of abuse. (Hernandez shared her own story of emotional abuse by a former coach in 2020.) In the midst of all that, Hernandez realized in 2018 she wasn’t ready to walk away from gymnastics forever—but she did have notes. “I thought, if I change the environment and I change how things are done, then maybe the outcome will be different,” she says. “I’m not going to break myself in half just to get [to the Olympics]. My body’s already done that and it didn’t like it,” she says. “There was a lot of nurturing and a lot of healing involved after 2016.”
Even before the pandemic hit, postponing the Tokyo Olympics for a year, the comeback was a big challenge—this Laurie Hernandez was older and more prone to injuries in a sport designed for prepubescent bodies, with a different kind of fitness than her 16-year-old competitive self. But she was also in a much healthier place mentally, having started therapy and becoming an advocate for mental health. “Therapy, and opening up about what’s going on in my brain, is really important because the longer I keep something that is weighing on me to myself, the heavier it gets. When you start to share with other people, it’s like okay they’re also holding this heaviness with me,” she says.
Hernandez’s road to Tokyo has been rocky, set back first by the pandemic, and then by injuries as she returned to competition this February for the first time in nearly five years. Just days ahead of the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials scheduled for June 24, Hernandez pulled out of her run for a spot on the Olympic team. Comeback over.
“Going into 2016, there was this very heavy weight of feeling like, I have to make it. Like I need this to happen in a weird inhumane way,” she says. That was never the priority for her return. Hernandez, who is an ambassador for health-focused Team Lilly, is part of a wave of gymnasts reclaiming joy and prioritizing their own health. In a sport that for years perpetuated a win-at-all-costs culture, that’s a radical act. “To be a healthy human and to have a big support system at the end of the day, that’s all I need,” she said when we spoke during the heat of her training earlier this year.
Hernandez won’t be adding any more Olympic medals to her collection this summer. But her comeback is far from a failure—it’s a game changing legacy for gymnastics. In coming back, even at the risk of falling short on the world’s stage, Hernandez got to take the power back—something she shares with former teammate Biles (who she’ll be reuniting with in Biles’ post-Olympics Gold Over America Tour). She got to center women athletes in a sporting culture that’s silenced them. She got to define glory not by medals for the U.S. or by titles for USA Gymnastics, but by the goals she set for herself. “I did a skill that nobody’s ever done before and I have it on video. I can’t wait until I get to do a reel of all the skills I never competed, but that were new and exciting,” she says. “That’s going to be fun for me.”