"There's a lot of unlearning that's constantly happening," Laurie Hernandez tells PEOPLE a year after she spoke out about her former coach who was suspended for alleged mental and emotional abuse

By Karen Mizoguchi
April 26, 2021 01:26 PM
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Laurie Hernandez performs in the floor exercise during the Winter Cup gymnastics competition
Credit: Darron Cummings/AP/Shutterstock

Laurie Hernandez is moving forward and, once again, enjoying the sport she loves while preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.

The gymnast, 20, tells PEOPLE that she has been focusing on her skills and training as the qualifiers for the Summer Games quickly approach. With the help of her new coaching staff, Hernandez is attempting to claim one of five spots for Team USA following her Olympic debut at Rio 2016, where she won team gold and a silver medal for beam.

"I like to think I have grown since then. You know, there's still stuff that will come up to this day that I'll be talking about either in therapy or to friends or family or whoever," Hernandez tells PEOPLE. She is one of seven athletes partnering with first-time United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) sponsor Eli Lilly to form Team Lilly.

One year ago, on April 30, 2020, the athlete spoke out about her former coach Maggie Haney and her former training situation, which she claimed was filled with "yelling and anger," according to Hernandez, who recalled feeling "uncomfortable and distressed." In May 2020, Haney was suspended by USA Gymnastics for alleged mental and emotional abuse. (Last month, Haney filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and claimed Hernandez's allegations were false, to which Hernandez tweeted "wow.")

Lauren Hernandez of the United States competes in the Balance Beam Final on day 10 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Rio Olympic Arena on August 15, 201
Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

The star, who relocated to California from New Jersey in 2018 for her "fresh start," is now being coached by Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang, who previously coached 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross. "I now have to relearn what I thought was good this whole time and it was not, it was just behavior that I learned to adapt to or something that I was taught, that's not actually right. Being in that environment from age five to 16, those are my developmental years. So there's just a lot of unlearning that's constantly happening," Hernandez says, reflecting on how she's grown a year later.

"Sometimes I'm like, 'This is great. I'm healing, everything is dandy. I have grown so much, I feel so wise.' And then, there are days where I'm like, 'I feel like I have snowballed backward down a hill on a skateboard and have not made any progress whatsoever.' That can really throw you off because that usually comes at a time where I'm like, 'Oh, I've learned that another thing is not right.' That can sting a little bit, but being able to talk about it and share it on social media and then have people connect to it. I think that's been really important," she shares.

With a new support system in her team, Hernandez is, once again, enjoying gymnastics.

"Honestly, there's so much freedom and movement that is taken for granted when it's being used as a way to achieve something. And that's when a lot of the times, not just in gymnastics, but in different sports, different athletes or different jobs will kind of burn out because there's an expectation for a very natural thing to do, which is to move and to express yourself in that way," she says. "So I noticed being able to do gymnastics where the coach that just wants me to feel good and to do my best and that wants the best for me."

With the year-long postponement of the Summer Games, Hernandez says she focused on her mental health, in addition to her physical health, during the COVID lockdown, for which she spent "a little less than six months" back in New Jersey with her family in between training.

"Mental health has, of course, been the biggest part, between just learning and unlearning things and being able to do therapy and having an Olympic delay when you've been training for that for so long," she says. "I know it's not just me, it's so many other athletes, but you're training for this big thing and then the rug kind of gets swept out from underneath you and the assignments now change and it's for a longer duration that you're staying in. There's a lot of things to understand and comprehend, but to be able to either journal or talk to my family about it or talk about it in therapy."

And as a partner and member of Team Lilly, Hernandez will continue to use her voice to champion all forms of health, including her own father Anthony's health journey. "My dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when he was younger so he's had it for a pretty long time," the Dancing with the Stars champion says of the patriarch, who has been "doing pretty well" and "been a lot more active."

"The pandemic led us to be closer-knit as a family with me and my parents and my siblings. There's been a lot of looking at new recipes and trying different foods that can fuel us and make us feel good," she says, adding of her father: "I'm really proud of him."

Next, Hernandez is expected to compete at the GK U.S. Classic on May 22 in Indianapolis ahead of the U.S. Nationals and Olympic trials for a chance at what would be her second Olympic Games. The star, who is turning 21 on June 9, is among the oldest candidates this year, in addition to her former Final Five teammate Simone Biles, who turned 24 in March.

"So funny to hear being a veteran," Hernandez says laughing at the fact that she is only in her early 20s. "You know, it is an interesting thing to compete in such a mixed age group, but at the same time, I'm not competing against age, I'm competing against skill level."

She adds, "For me in 2016 to be 16 years old and to be able to keep up with everybody and to have that skill level that put me in the mix, that was the most important part. And then people stop looking at your age, they just see what you can do. I think that's the most important part."

And fans can expect Hernandez to pull out some surprises in competition.

"We are training all floor events. We are able to do all four and right now they're coming along pretty well, but also, of course, we are loving beam and since I was able to do individual finals on that for Rio," she explains.

"For some reason, I think because I'm a little older, it almost comes even more naturally to me now than it did before. I feel like I can just grasp it a little better or get the concept. It just feels a little more like home now. And because of that feeling, we're able to add more upgrades and play around with different skills. That's the best part," Hernandez raves.