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Laurie Hernandez returning to Olympics with different perspective: commentator, not competitor

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Bad as Laurie Hernandez initially thought the injury that ended her Olympic hopes were, it was so much worse.

Hernandez withdrew from the national championships after hyperextending her knee during warmups for balance beam.

In a July 6 tweet, however, Hernandez revealed she had "a bone bruise, fluid, a cyst and torn meniscus" as a result of the bad dismount.

That's a lot more than a hyperextension.

While she received lots of support and well-wishes for her recovery, Hernandez said there were still negative comments, with some people even going as far as to accuse her of injuring herself on purpose in order to petition for a spot at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

But Hernandez, 20, already had a path to Tokyo laid out for her before her injury – one that didn't involve the trials.

She'd been approached about joining NBC's Olympic coverage team as a studio analyst for Peacock, the company's streaming platform. She accepted a spot on the broadcast team shortly after the championships.

Laurie Hernandez performs her balance beam routine during the U.S. Classic gymnastics competition in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Laurie Hernandez performs her balance beam routine during the U.S. Classic gymnastics competition in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

"Originally I was like, 'Am I strong enough to do that? That's gonna really hurt,'" Hernandez told USA Today Sports. "But you know at the end of the day, I did want to try out my commentating shoes and I think it would be kind of great for future stuff, too."

The 2016 Olympic gold medalist, who also earned an individual silver for her beam performance at the Rio Games, already had the chance to dip her toes in the media waters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July. Alongside veteran sportscaster Mike Tirico, Hernandez made her commentating debut during an event she had hoped to be competing at.

“I actually wasn't nervous at all," Hernandez said. "I think just from doing so many interviews and so many media-related kind of things and having kind of a formal conversation with somebody on camera talking about a sport that I'm so heavily ingrained in, it just felt very natural.”

Hernandez, like most people her age, spends a lot of time on social media. She's amassed 1.4 million followers on Instagram, over 500,000 on Twitter and over 600,000 on TikTok. It helps her connect with fans and audiences, something Hernandez said she thinks will help her in Tokyo because she's clued in to what information fans want to hear.

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She's also friends with this year's U.S. team, whom she competed alongside throughout competition season, and knows what the young women have been through better than any of her colleagues.

When asked if she had any concerns about her new role with NBC requiring her to comment on the performances of gymnasts Hernandez considers friends, she said it's not about her opinion, but rather providing perspective few other people have.

“I get to kind of bring to light all of their hard work that has been being put in for years now and explaining like, 'OK, here's what this one athlete is going to need if she wants X, Y or Z. Here is what she's been working on. This is what she expects to do, let's see if she does it,'" Hernandez said.

While this year's Olympics will be vastly different than the Rio Games that Hernandez participated in due to COVID-19, she's still willing to offer advice to this year's team, though she said she doesn't think they need it. Five of the six U.S. gymnasts heading to Tokyo have competed at the World Championships, something Hernandez hadn't done prior to her Olympic appearance.

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Laurie Hernandez during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021.
Laurie Hernandez during the Winter Cup in Feb. 2021.

Hernandez was just 16 and the youngest member of the "Final Five" when she competed in Rio in 2016. She's latched on to this year's youngest American competitor, Sunisa Lee, who placed second at the trials behind Simone Biles to lock in her spot for Tokyo.

“I'm really excited to see Suni go out there," Hernandez said. "I have just been pulling for her from the very beginning. I remember being at championships and just telling her, 'Kid, you're right there. You are right there. I know you don't see it, but you're right there.'”

Jordan Chiles is another gymnast that Hernandez has bonded with during this competition year, mostly over their love of Marvel. Hernandez designed and wore Marvel-inspired leotards at the U.S. Championships and Chiles' floor routine music samples the Spider-Man theme song.

@lauriehernandez_

day 2 championships leo reveal🥺 ##captainamerica ##falcon (technically now falcon is cap so it’s both haha)

♬ falcon and cap ill do my best - Laurie Hernandez

Hernandez might even end up in a Marvel movie herself someday if her post-Tokyo plans work out. She's interested in screenwriting and acting and wants to attend NYU, one of the most prominent performing arts schools in the country. Producing and directing are also on her bucket list.

“I don't know what I like, I just know that I like all of it," Hernandez said. "And the only way to kind of figure that out is to just dip my toe in the water, and I had this perfect opportunity to go out and do commentating for the Olympics, which is cool. So I think it will definitely lead into other things for sure. It's like an umbrella.”

Before all that, though, Hernandez must make it through her second Olympics – her first off the mat – holding a mic. Her goal for Tokyo is simple:

“I just want the Games to be as fun for those listening as it would be for either us competing or us letting everybody know what's happening.”

Contact Emily Leiker at eleiker@usatoday.com or on Twitter @emleiker

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Laurie Hernandez helping NBC with Tokyo Olympics gymnastics coverage