INDIANAPOLIS – Gymnastics is what Laurie Hernandez does. It is not who she is.
While that might seem like an obvious distinction, it’s one many elite athletes struggle to make. Truth be told, many non-elite and non-athletes, too. But when you’re staring down “retirement” in your teens or early 20s, and you’ve devoted your life to your sport for as long as you can remember, well, it can be particularly angst-ridden.
Which is why Hernandez has no regrets about her choices these last four years. Even if they wind up costing the 19-year-old a chance at a second Olympic team.
“Taking a break was really important so that way I could separate from gymnastics and think, ‘OK, who am I outside of gymnastics? What are the things I like to do outside of the sport?’” Hernandez told USA TODAY Sports in January, before the first national team training camp of the year.
“Because we can’t do the sport forever. So what do I like? Can I meet new people? All of these different things,” she said. “I was able to do that in my time off.”
Gymnastics is an unforgiving sport in so many ways, but its physical demands are insatiable. Taking even a few days off can set a gymnast back weeks. Months and months? You might as well be starting from scratch.
Most of the U.S. women who have taken time off after an Olympics have returned to the gym after about a year or 18 months. Even then, Aly Raisman said she spent most of her first year back just doing conditioning.
Hernandez, who won a gold medal in Rio with the Final Five and a silver on balance beam, was off for more than two years. She wrote a book, competed on “Dancing with the Stars” (she won) and dabbled in the entertainment world. It wasn’t until last fall that she resumed training.
Hernandez left coach Maggie Haney after Rio and now trains with Jenny Zhang and Howie Liang, who coached London gold medalist Kyla Ross. Haney is currently suspended by USA Gymnastics, accused of bullying and verbally harassing gymnasts.
“I had done gymnastics since I was 5 and made the Olympic team at 16,” Hernandez said. “So that’s 11 years, the first chunk of my life, that I dedicated to just one thing, with the same people.”
The break showed her there was a much bigger world outside of the gym. And when she did decide to come back, she knew it was because she truly wanted to rather than it being a stall tactic to put off having to figure out what else to do with herself.
“I was OK doing other things. I was like, ‘OK, I’m not just a gymnast. I can do these things,’” she said. “Choosing to come back, it was, I’m choosing to come back because I actually want to be here. Not because I have chains onto the sport.”
But the long layoff has narrowed her chances of making it to Tokyo. Hernandez acknowledges she’s not where she needs to be on some of events, and the clips from training that she’s posted online show only skills or partial routines.
She has yet to compete, and passed on participating in this month’s national team training camp because it’s primarily for those athletes vying for spots at events this spring. She has been invited to the April training camp, and national team coordinator Tom Forster said in a statement that Hernandez plans to attend.
Hernandez knows all of this has made some question the sincerity of her comeback. She’s aware of the cynics who think it’s more about keeping sponsors interested so she can cash in on the commercial interests the Olympics generate.
“Honestly, I can only say so much and post so much on social media until people really stop questioning it. At the end of the day, everybody’s going to say whatever they’re going to say,” Hernandez said.
“(My comeback) was late. It’s a lot later than a lot of girls do,” she added. “The fun part is I am not those girls. I can’t quite tell others what it would be like to come back earlier because I didn’t do that. All I can do is be here now and show you that I’m ready.”
She hopes that means Tokyo. But if it’s the next phase in her life, well, she knows now that she’s ready for that, too.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.