The 20-year-old, who was the youngest member of the gold medal-winning “Final Five” squad at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, won’t win a medal at the Winter Cup, the first competition for elite U.S. gymnasts since the coronavirus pandemic halted meets roughly a year ago. Her marks on the beam (fifth) and floor exercise (11th) were modest.
But the magnitude of Hernandez’s achievement was as palpable as her joy. She smiled with her eyes for NBC’s cameras and then, after removing her mask for a post-event Zoom interview, smiled unobscured and full-wattage as she spoke about the range of emotions she experienced Saturday — terror, nerves, excitement, calm and elation, all packed into a single afternoon.
She credited much of her good feeling to her new coach, Jenny Zhang — not mentioning by name her longtime and former coach, Maggie Haney, who is serving a five-year suspension from coaching (reduced from eight years) for inflicting emotional abuse and forcing young gymnasts to train while injured.
Hernandez said that, before Saturday’s competition, during which she contested just two of the four events, Zhang told her to omit the trickier elements in her floor routine, explaining that she cared most about Hernandez enjoying herself in her first meet since the Rio Games, where she helped the U.S. squad to team gold and claimed silver on the beam.
“I did feel genuine joy coming back out there and showing off this new routine,” Hernandez said. “I just got to be myself; there was no pressure from her. It was just pure joy and purely wanting me to do well today.”
The Winter Cup, being held without spectators at Indianapolis Convention Center, has no direct bearing on who makes the U.S. Olympic team for this summer’s Tokyo Games. Rather, it’s a chance for top American gymnasts to perform before judges for the first time in a year and provide them and their coaches with a gauge of their readiness for June’s U.S. championships and U.S. Olympic trials, where the Olympic team will be named.
The gymnast who seized the spotlight Saturday was Jordan Chiles, 19, who trains alongside five-time world all-around champion Simone Biles in Spring, Tex., and shares coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi. Though a handful of lower-ranked gymnasts will compete Sunday, Chiles effectively won the women’s all-around Saturday by scoring top marks on three of four events — the vault and floor exercise and tying for first on the beam.
Biles, who turns 24 next month, didn’t compete in the event because it doesn’t mesh with the competitive calendar she has set for making her second Olympic team.
Chiles, who is named after Michael Jordan and relocated from Washington state to train with the Landis in 2019, credited Biles, her coaches and newfound mental and physical health for the impressive strides she has made during her year and a half away from competition. The biggest difference, Chiles said, is that she is now doing gymnastics for herself and not anyone else.
Sunisa Lee, the 2019 U.S. all-around silver medalist behind Biles, also dazzled in her limited work Saturday, competing only on the bars and beam as she recovers from an ankle injury. Lee, considered a medal contender in Tokyo in the all-around and bars, earned the highest marks on the bars and was third on the beam.
Joy is an infectious aspect of women’s gymnastics, but it has been muted under the harsh training methods extolled by former U.S. national team director Martha Karolyi and embraced by other coaches seeking to forge U.S. Olympic champions. John Geddert, coach of the 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic team, was one such coach. He died by suicide Thursday, when he was set to be arraigned on 24 criminal charges, including sexual assault and human trafficking, in connection with acts that occurred at the Michigan gym he owned and ran for decades.
In a Zoom interview Friday to promote the Winter Cup, USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung suggested that reporters focus on the athletes. “While I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of what occurred yesterday,” Leung said, “we are here today to celebrate so many incredible, dedicated athletes competing on the national stage for the first time in more than a year, and I want to make sure we keep the focus on them.”
Yet as much as USA Gymnastics wants to move forward, it cannot escape the legacy of abuse that isn’t solely tied to the hundreds of sexual assaults committed by now-jailed team doctor Larry Nassar but has been a systemic part of training at some of its sanctioned, elite gyms.
NBC, which aired the all-around competition, didn’t dodge the topic Saturday, acknowledging at the outset of its broadcast that it had been “a difficult week” for the sport. It devoted a segment to Geddert’s death, his close association with Nassar and criticism from 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion Aly Raisman, who renewed her call for a fully independent investigation of USA Gymnastics after Geddert’s death.
While USA Gymnastics officials work to emerge from bankruptcy and seek financial settlements with hundreds of Nassar victims, many current and former gymnasts still bear emotional and physical scars inflicted by abusive coaches.
Hernandez wasn’t the only gymnast making her competitive debut with a new coach Saturday. So, too, was Riley McCusker, who relocated to Arizona to train alongside U.S. national teammate Jade Carey.
It was McCusker’s first meet since the August 2019 U.S. championships, which she couldn’t complete because she was suffering from an exercise-induced illness, rhabdomyolysis. McCusker looked fit and confident Saturday and posted the second-highest marks on the uneven bars.
Without referencing Haney, Hernandez spoke about the bond she and McCusker share, having sought out new coaches while reclaiming a love for gymnastics.
“Both of us had a lot of adapting to do in our comeback and changes,” Hernandez said. “If anybody [understands], of course Riley gets it. Coming back here has been a big accomplishment. Just being here in general is a big accomplishment. I’m so proud of her.”