Laurie Hernandez, Olympic gold medalist and Dancing With the Stars champion, opened up about her gymnastics journey, Latin heritage, and mental health in the online lecture “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond” on Oct. 1.
Hernandez’s story began with a solid foundation and a supportive family. Working her way up the gymnastics ladder, she scored herself a spot on the senior national gymnastics team, a major step in the Olympic direction in 2015.
“Growing up with a social worker… there was just a lot of brainwork happening, but sometimes that can feel lonely when people aren’t talking about [mental health],” Hernandez told The Leader.
“The fact that mental health really wasn’t talked about in gymnastics was a pretty big red flag considering just how much mental work is needed in the sport,” said Hernandez.
“When things get hard, it doesn’t mean you stop or quit… it never gave me that fulfilling feeling, it didn’t give me what I wanted… it’s okay to take a break… that’s self-care.” she said.
Hernandez’s passion for mental health derives from the abuse that she, and other gymnasts like Aly Raisman, faced in the years during training. Many gymnasts face eating disorders, body comparison, and symptoms of PTSD from the strict environments.
“Mental health has been more of a conversation topic within the sport of gymnastics within the last couple of years because of what’s happened in the gymnastics community,” said Hernandez.
In 2016, USA Gymnastics, alongside other parties, faced lawsuits regarding sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse allegations against coaches and staff.
After opening up about the abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics, Hernandez noticed a tidal wave of athletes coming forward about their experiences of abuse. The Netflix documentary “Athlete A” and the Twitter trend “Athlete Alliance” have increased the impact of survivors speaking out.
“[With] Aly [Raisman] being so bold as well as hundreds of other gymnasts... openly speaking about it, I mean they’re all superheroes because now we have other women who feel a little more comfortable coming forward and sharing what happened with them because they saw somebody else do it,” explained Hernandez.
Alongside mental illness in relation to the abuse, the Olympian also strives to break stigmas and raise awareness toward other mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
“They’re not crazy, these are things that they’re dealing with and that they’re working on, and making sure that we are being sensitive to them and knowing that we are there for them and that we have their backs,” said Hernandez.
In the 2016 Olympic games, Hernandez was the first Latina woman to represent the USA in gymnastics in decades alongside two white and two African American gymnasts.
While she felt balanced in her home growing up, Hernandez is also conscious that, “There’s a lot of Hispanic households where… [it is] just deal with it and figure it out yourself rather than of being open to listening to possible resources or learning about resources for your kids.”
Laurie Hernandez continues to advocate for mental health awareness in the gymnastics community and beyond.