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Opinion: Laurie Hernandez accomplishes what she wanted in first meet since Rio Olympics

  | USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS – The smile said it all.

Laurie Hernandez had just finished her first competition since the Rio Olympics, and she couldn’t have been happier. It wasn’t perfect, and she knows she’ll need more difficulty to keep pace in what will be a fierce fight for a spot on the Olympic team.

But she’s back and she had a blast. As Hernandez talked with coach Jenny Zhang, her smile was so big not even her mask could hide it.

“It was terrifying to initially go back out there,” the Olympic gold and silver medalist said after doing two events at Saturday’s Winter Cup meet. “Having that time away from gymnastics to go and do my own thing and then come back, it was like coming back as a new person, but with old skills in my body. I felt like I had a one-up on myself, if that makes any sense.

“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 was 16,” she said. “So I really enjoyed today.”

Which is the whole point.

That Hernandez took time off after Rio was hardly a surprise. Elite-level gymnastics is hard, and the pressure of making an Olympic team is almost as taxing as the physical effort. Plus, there were commercial opportunities for the bubbly 16-year-old who’d been a fan favorite.

But there were darker reasons behind her break, too, which became clear last year when Hernandez’s former coach, Maggie Haney, was banned by USA Gymnastics for eight years for physical and emotional abuse of Hernandez and other athletes. The ban was reduced to five years after Haney’s appeal, but that’s still an extraordinary length of time and reflects the gravity of the abuse.  

Though Hernandez had left Haney after Rio, moving to Los Angeles to train with Zhang and her husband Howie Liang, the abuse continued to traumatize her in the gym. Talking about it, and being open about her struggles with mental health have helped her clear that darkness away.

That’s what Hernandez meant when she said after the meet that she feels as if she has a “new brain.” It isn’t just that she’s no longer a teenager. She sees things differently now. Both as a person and as a gymnast.

“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. Which I’ve learned now, that’s not true at all,” Hernandez said. “You get nervous either way because you care, not because you’re not ready.

“So it’s all just a big mindset change. Now, I invite it and I know that the nerves are what make you great.”

It helps, too, that Zhang and Liang are what coaches are supposed to be, nurturing and encouraging. When Zhang saw that Hernandez was struggling during warmups with one of her tumbling passes on floor exercise, she told Hernandez not to do it.

It would mean a lower start value, sure, but so what? It’s February, and the Tokyo Olympics aren’t for another five months. This meet is the equivalent of the preseason.

“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 said. “She was hellbent on making sure that I enjoyed myself in my first meet back.”

That’s not to say Hernandez is taking all of this lightly. Far from it. She wouldn’t have spent the last two-plus years working her butt off if she didn’t want a spot on a second Olympic team. She wouldn’t have learned new skills that she won’t talk about yet – “This is Fight Club. I can’t tell you anything!” – but promises she’ll unveil soon.

Even with the watered-down routines she did on floor and balance beam, she showed she’s someone who bears watching.

She had good height on her tumbling passes and had only a slight stumble on the landing of the first. But her floor routines have always had a show-like quality to them, and her ability to captivate an audience has only grown since 2016. Performing to a medley that included “The Room Where it Happens,” Hernandez smiled and shimmied as if she was in a video for the Hamilton Mixtape.

“There was nothing expression-wise to choreograph (because) I know that if I’m having a really good time, it’s going to just fly out of my face,” said Hernandez, who did her own choreography.

She has always possessed a lightness on balance beam that makes her look as if she’s floating through her routine. While some gymnasts land so solidly and with such force the thud can be heard throughout the arena, Hernandez is whisper quiet, her effortlessness disguising the incredible difficulty of what she’s doing.

She was beaming as she left the podium, telling Zhang, “It was good!”

Hernandez is training all four events, and has more difficulty on beam and floor than she showed at Winter Cup. But all of that is for another day.

For this first meet, it was enough that she was here and had fun. More than enough, actually.

It was everything.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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