So as a young teen, Hernandez learned to perform at home, too, answering her mother’s questions about how practice had gone with a single word — “Fine” — before retreating to her room to punish herself. It probably was her fault, as Haney told her. She did cry too much. Maybe it was all in her head. Maybe everything would be okay the next day if she could just throw up the food she had eaten.
It wasn’t until after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, when Hernandez became an overnight star by winning team gold and individual silver on balance beam, that her mother overheard her talking with a teammate about Haney’s methods. A social worker in the New Jersey school system, Wanda Hernandez asked for details and filed a complaint with USA Gymnastics.
Nearly four years later, Haney on Wednesday was suspended for eight years for emotional and verbal abuse.
In one sense, the sanction represents a watershed moment for USA Gymnastics, the national governing body that failed to immediately report allegations of sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar, exposing hundreds of athletes to future assaults.
In banning Haney, USAG acknowledged it regards emotional and verbal abuse as serious and unacceptable. In the view of Judie Saunders, a lawyer who represented Hernandez and several other gymnasts whose families filed subsequent complaints against Haney, it is a step forward — albeit a “micro step.” But the amount of time it took USAG to act reflects a system that is woefully inadequate.
“We waited since 2016,” Wanda Hernandez said in a telephone interview. “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why. It’s my wish in the future that if somebody comes to USA Gymnastics with a concern, they are heard, they are acknowledged, and things are put in place so [the abuse] is not repeated. This did not have to happen to other gymnasts.”
‘I got this!’
Hernandez was the youngest member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team in Rio, without the fame of returning Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman or the international accomplishments of Simone Biles and Madison Kocian, both then 19. Hernandez was the lone 16-year-old on the last U.S. Olympic squad assembled by national women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Outwardly, she thrived under Karolyi, who didn’t tolerate weakness, mistakes or complaints. So like the others, she learned to stay quiet.
Despite the pressure, Hernandez brimmed with self-assurance on beam and exuded joy on the floor. “I got this!” was her motto, and she delivered when it counted.
Gymnastics, after all, was her love from age 5. At 6, she started training with Haney, a former North Carolina State standout, at MG Elite Gymnastics in Monmouth County, N.J. The coach’s verbal abuse started when Hernandez was 13, her mother later learned, when puberty loomed and she showed signs of Olympic potential.
“She’d humiliate me in front of others without a doubt, constantly make comments about me gaining weight, have me work out on multiple injuries, curse at me, point out the way I cried in front of others, and much more than goes beyond my own words,” Hernandez wrote in an Instagram post Thursday, the day after Haney was suspended.
In October 2016, Wanda Hernandez overheard the conversation that prompted her to take action.
Months passed. Years followed without action.
Hernandez took an extended break from gymnastics, as many athletes do after the Olympics. She parlayed her newfound fame and love of performing into a title on “Dancing With the Stars.” She wrote a memoir, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond.” And Mattel issued a Laurie Hernandez Barbie as part of its Shero series.
But after 18 months, when Biles resumed training to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Hernandez wasn’t ready to come back.
With her complaint against Haney unresolved, returning to MG Elite was out of the question. Wary of the reception she might get at other gyms on the East Coast, she headed to California, far from Haney’s sphere of influence, and found a new training base at Gym-Max, former home of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross, who went on to claim 24 all-American awards during four years at UCLA.
A decision at last
On Feb. 3, three years and four months after the Hernandez family filed its complaint, a three-member panel convened by USAG opened a hearing on Haney.
As it deliberated, the panel issued a provisional suspension barring Haney from working with or attending any training session or competition in which minor-age gymnasts took part.
Soon after, 2018 world champion Riley McCusker, who had developed a muscle ailment linked to overtraining under Haney, announced she was leaving MG Elite to train at Arizona Sunrays with national teammate Jade Carey, whose father, Brian, is their coach. According to the Orange County Register, the McCusker family was among those who filed complaints about Haney’s methods.
On Wednesday, USAG announced Haney’s eight-year suspension. Haney is entitled to an appeal. Her lawyer, Russell Prince, did not respond to a request to comment but has indicated she will seek arbitration.
In response to a list of emailed questions, USAG, which has declared bankruptcy as it seeks to settle more than 500 legal claims over its handling of Nassar’s abuse, acknowledged in a statement, “While there are a number of contributing factors to this timeline that are confidential, ultimately, the Safe Sport investigation and resolution process must be faster in the future.”
The statement noted USAG had increased its Safe Sport staff from one person to eight in recent years.
Wanda Hernandez said she feels the suspension is appropriate and hopes her family’s experience helps the next generation of gymnasts.
“[I’d hope] parents continue to teach their children that they need to find their voice,” Wanda Hernandez said. “They need to know that it’s okay to feel anxious, to feel depressed and to talk about mental health — and that harassment is not acceptable under any condition.”
She also thinks there is a lesson for coaches.
“Coaches need to check each other,” she said. “If somebody sees that another coach is doing something wrong, you can say: ‘Hey, you’re working this kid too hard. You need to go take a break.’ Don’t be just a bystander.”
With the help of therapy that continues today, Hernandez, 19, has moved forward while acknowledging she bears scars.
“There are some things from my experience that will unfortunately stick with me forever, and I’ll always be working to heal from it,” Hernandez wrote on Instagram. “But sharing my story gives me a chance to close the chapter, take a deep breath, and start something new.”
A turning point?
Having advocated successfully on the gymnasts’ behalf, Saunders hoped the result was a beginning because she didn’t see it as a resolution.
“Having worked in the area of child advocacy and abuse victims’ rights, any small light or glimmer of hope by authority figures or institutions adds to the collective awakening of any type of abuse,” Saunders said. “It’s a micro step in the right direction by USA Gymnastics. I hope that it’s the turning point of a pattern.”
Former U.S. gymnastics champion Jennifer Sey, who chronicled her own emotional and physical abuse as an Olympic contender at Parkettes Gym in Allentown, Pa., in a 2008 memoir, “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams,” approved of the suspension but remains skeptical.
“I’d like to think it’s a good sign, but I’m not confident,” Sey wrote in an email exchange. “I think [USAG looks] for obvious PR-able moves that they can point to, to say, ‘See, we’re making a difference.’ Until there is widespread action taken — because these behaviors are just the norm amongst elite coaches and many coaches of athletes of all levels — I’m not confident in any actions they take.”
Jessica O’Beirne, founder of the popular podcast GymCastic, regards the suspension as a significant, overdue shift in USAG’s policy toward athletes.
“I didn’t think they would ever acknowledge that emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse,” O’Beirne said. “That’s the part that makes me feel [USAG has] turned a corner culturally.”
It’s a shift she feels fans will cheer.
“Fans care about the athletes — period,” O’Beirne said. “Basically they’re wondering, ‘Why did this take so long?’ ”
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