BY WILL GRAVES, AP Sports journalist
The nerves were there. They were really inevitable. But instead of greeting her with fear or fear on the competition floor like last time, Laurie Hernandez hugged her.
Yes, it’s been more than four years – a lifetime and then a few in women’s gymnastics – since she stepped off the podium at the 2016 Olympics with a starry smile and two medals around her neck. Her journey since leaving Brazil has included trying the things that came with new fame, moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles, and breaking up with a coach who is currently serving a 5-year ban for abusive behavior.
Oh, and then there’s a hint of skepticism as to whether their comeback was real.
But all that took a back seat at the Indianapolis Winter Cup on Saturday. The electric smile – one she insists on is no longer choreographed but sincere – returned. And while her performance, a fifth on the balance beam and an eleventh on the ground after watering down her final fall pass in the name of safety, proved how long she’d been gone, her return was a win in itself.
“It was like coming back as a new person,” said Hernandez.
She talked about herself. She might as well have talked about her sport. The meeting marked the first major non-welcoming event in more than 15 months for almost the entire field after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled almost the entire 2020 competition calendar and postponed the Tokyo Olympics to this summer.
Even in a largely empty arena filled with cardboard clippings and the calls from the announcement team echoing in place of applause, it somehow felt normal.
“There is such a thing as these little butterflies that come and go,” said Hernandez, now 20. “But what has happened a lot in the last year is that I do a blasting routine and then halfway, kind of.” Get settled in my own body and it just feels like I can relax and be grounded. And so it happened today. “
She wasn’t the only one. Jordan Chiles, who was considering quitting elite gymnastics to focus on her upcoming college career, had the highest total score at 57,050. It was an achievement that served as confirmation of their decision to run for the Olympic team. A path that became even more difficult for athletes who turned 16 this year – including Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely – who are now allowed to compete in Tokyo.
“I just went out and did what I did and showed people what to see,” said Chiles.
Blakely and McClain hardly looked intimidated by the missions. Blakely’s rock-hard beam routine – including a gorgeous layout at the end of a fall pass that looked like it was on the ground, not a 4-inch piece of wood 4 feet in the air – first pushed it into a tie at the event. McClain was fourth on the beam and third vault.
“They did really well,” said national team coordinator Tom Forster. “And they looked flavored.”
You need to rely on that determination if you are to be part of the conversation this summer. Some of the most successful gymnasts in the US program – including Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and former world champion Morgan Hurd – skipped what Forster called “pre-season,” a way for athletes to shed some rust.
Not everyone was rusty. Three-time world championship medalist Sunisa Lee put together a stunning set on the uneven bars, her 15,050 being the highest of the day at any event. Not bad considering Lee’s not kidding when she says she’s just “throwing skills” out there.
Leg injuries have limited her time for floor training and jumping, although Forster said he was confident Lee will be available for all-around competition later this spring.
Hernandez, who helped the Final Five win team gold in Rio and earn an individual silver on Beam, is also on track to make all four events competitive until things get serious in May. She admits she has a “new brain” and approach that proves both her maturity and the way gymnasts strengthen each other after a series of scandals that have rocked U.S. gymnastics since then triumphant moment in Brazil.
“Maybe when I was 16 I would go to a competition and feel nervous and say, ‘I’m not nervous. I’m fine because I equated my nerves with the fact that I wasn’t prepared, which of course I have now learned that this is not true at all, ”she said. “Either way, you get nervous because you care, not because you’re not ready. So it’s all just a big change in mindset. “
Improving the difficulty of their routines is a must if Hernandez is to pose a serious threat to the six-women team flying to Tokyo this summer. There is still a long way to go. On the other hand, she believes she has come a long way.
The relationship with former trainer Maggie Haney, who was suspended by USA Gymnastics last April for abusive practices, is over. On Saturday, she and Riley McCusker – also a former Haney student – took a moment to drink in an environment they believe is far healthier than the one they once knew.
“I think we both had a lot of adjustment to do, either on our comeback or on changes that we had to endure,” said Hernandez. “And we were just excited to be here and see each other. And I think if someone like Riley, of course, understands Riley. And so we were able to connect in that way and on so many different levels. When I got back here it was just a really big achievement I think. Just to be here in general is a great achievement. “
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