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Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez on being a Latina trailblazer—and healing from abuse

"I'm only 20 and I feel like I've lived three lives already," says the Olympic winner, crediting the pivotal role her Puerto Rican parents have played in her journey.
Image: Lauren Hernandez
Laurie Hernandez competes on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 9, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.Lars Baron / Getty Images file

Gymnast Laurie Hernandez's living room is decorated with many photographs. But two are the most special—one shows her parents praying before her performance at the 2016 Olympics and the other is of them hugging her afterwards.

"I love those photos," Hernandez told NBC News. "Going to the Olympics, competing and then looking into the crowd and seeing my parents, that was one of the sweetest things I could possibly ever have witnessed...It's just a big reminder as to how much support my parents have given me in all of this."

Her Puerto Rican parents, Wanda and Anthony Hernandez, were watching their then-teenage daughter make history as the first Latina gymnast to represent the United States at the Olympics since 2004 — while also bringing home some medals. Hernandez won silver on the balance beam and gold on the team event alongside fellow USA gymnasts, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Madison Kocian.

"There was so much representation, from Black women to white women, a Hispanic girl, so I think that was a really important thing for just the globe to see," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said her fans will learn more about how she trains during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as "how I was raised and who my parents are" in the new Peacock Original documentary series "True Colors," starring her and other Hispanic trailblazers, such as the actor Mario Lopez, the former professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others.

"You'll be able to get a really good feel as to why I am the way I am and why my siblings are the way we are," Hernandez, who's currently training for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, said. "It's been, definitely, a crazy ride. I'm only 20 and I feel like I've lived three lives already."

Image: Lauren Hernandez
TRUE COLORS -- "Laurie Hernandez" Episode 101Telemundo

Hernandez remembers being very passionate about the sport since a very young age. When she was still just a little girl training in New Jersey, she looked at her parents and said: "Hey, like I want to go to the Olympics. ... I have all these crazy dreams."

"They could have very easily been like, 'You're a child. You came out of the womb nine years ago, maybe let's try something else.' But they didn't. Instead, they hit me with the 'well, if this is what you want, then how can we help you?'" Hernandez recalled.

At the 2016 Olympics, her parents were praying "that I don't wipe out," while competing, she said.

"I didn't realize it until after Rio. We had all sat down away from cameras and talked about it. And they were like, we really questioned if we were being good parents by letting you stay in it because you're getting hurt over and over again, which is part of the sport," Hernandez said. "But after getting surgery in 2014, they saw how determined I was and they were like, 'OK, we can't pull that away from her.'"

Battling effects of abuse, working on healing

But underneath all of that, Hernandez's passion for gymnastics was slowly being tainted while training under coach Maggie Haney, who trained her for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Wanda Hernandez had filed a complaint to USA Gymnastics that same year after she overheard a FaceTime conversation her daughter was having with a former teammate about a time Haney pulled that gymnast’s hair.

USA Gymnastics opened a case earlier this year to look into allegations that Haney had been verbally and emotionally abusing gymnasts like Hernandez during training. Hernandez and other gymnasts testified during the case's hearings.

"It was kind of like opening up an old wound," she said. "I don't think it ever really healed in the first place."

During an 80-minute long testimony at the USA Gymnastics hearing in February, Hernandez said the abuse triggered eating disorders and depression that she continues to battle until this day. After a weekslong hearing, a USA Gymnastics independent hearing panel banned Haney for eight years after determining she had violated their ethical code of conduct and safe sport policy.

The suspension came as a significant step by USA Gymnastics to change the sport’s overall culture, which many gymnasts criticized during the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal involving former national team doctor Larry Nassar, who is now serving what amounts to a lifetime prison sentence for molesting more than 200 girls and women.

"I'm just glad that USA Gymnastics was able to do the right thing and have an action towards it rather than just let things be," Hernandez said. "It's important for other people to see that that kind of behavior, especially towards kids, is not OK."

Image: Lauren Hernandez
Laurie Hernandez.Telemundo

Therapy has become part of Hernandez's healing process, something that was "not an unnatural thing to bring up and talk about" with her mother, who is a social worker, and her sister, who is a therapist.

Even though Hernandez is now training with a new coach in California, coming back to the gymnastics environment can be tough, she said.

"It's a new one and it's a safe one, but it was still pretty triggering. So, there was a lot of healing, a lot of conversations happening over just trying to go back into physical, old patterns, conditioning, going to practice and what that was like," she said.

As she continues to train for 2021, Hernandez is reconnecting with her love for gymnastics with the support of her "close-knit Puerto Rican family."

"I'm just excited for 2021," said Hernandez. "I think this extra year has benefited me in the sense that I've had more time to upgrade and to work on technical issues or to add extra skills that maybe for this year I wouldn't have had time to do."

After the Olympics, Hernandez knows what she wants to do. She's going into acting.

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