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How Laurie Hernandez overcame sadness and disappointment at the Rio Games

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Laurie Hernandez could be heard over the crowd at the women’s gymnastics all-around final, screaming encouragement for Aly Raisman as she chased the silver medal on Thursday night. It was another show of the positive energy that seems to radiate off the New Jersey gymnast.

Only days before, though, Hernandez’s coach looked at her student and thought, “This is not like my kid that I know.”

It was an emotional week for “The Human Emoji.” The 16-year-old left the U.S. trials as a potential face of these Rio Games but then encountered some struggles that would frustrate any Olympic veteran.

There was a minor injury. There was a slow leak of guarded information. There was an ill-timed subpar workout. And there was the decision by head coach Marta Karolyi that Raisman and Gabby Douglas, not Hernandez, would get the opportunity to qualify for the all-around final along with teammate (and eventual champion) Simone Biles.

At one point, Hernandez’s coach, Maggie Haney, called fellow coach Sarah Jantzi back in the U.S. and “cried my eyes out.”

So what happened?

First, expectations happened. Hernandez went from a long shot to make the team to a supernova at trials, wowing with her floor routine and panache carved from her ballet background and Haney’s choreography. Biles took the crowd’s breath away in San Jose, but Hernandez, with her ability to captivate fans who couldn’t even see her face from the rafters, got a lot of people wanting more.

In the end, Karolyi’s toughest decision didn’t even involve Hernandez — she was on the team. It was Douglas who nearly stayed home. Thus began the first Olympics for both Hernandez and her coach, and little things started to go wrong during the first week in Rio.

Hernandez suffered a slight muscle strain in her stomach, and Haney wasn’t quite sure how to treat it. Pretty much every gymnast has some sort of pain or strain, but because the core is so crucial to every single gymnastics move, everything was vulnerable. Adding to the stress was word leaking out that Hernandez would turn pro.

“We didn’t necessarily want that information to come out right away,” Haney said.

[Slideshow: Rio athletes all glammed up]

Meanwhile, Karolyi evaluated each day’s training to see who would be given a shot at qualifying for the all-around final. She could only choose three competitors, and there were four who were worthy — Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Hernandez.

Hernandez had “one bad workout” on uneven bars, Haney said, and the coach believes that made the difference.

“I just know the day the lineup went in, that’s when it was,” Haney said. “She [Hernandez] went out and did two bar routines the next day and they were both beautiful. So it was like, ugh, a day late, a dollar short. That’s the way it is.”

Haney stressed she had no qualms with Karolyi’s final decision, saying “Aly deserved to go in. She did an amazing job.” Both she and Hernandez were thrilled for Raisman, who won silver, and the entire team. And Raisman’s all-around final was as emphatic as it was uplifting.

Still, there was the lingering sadness and disappointment. Any gymnast knows that “next time” is never guaranteed in this sport. Biles may return for Tokyo 2020, despite her relatively advanced age at 19. Madison Kocian, also 19, is only getting better. Ragan Smith, 15, was very strong at trials.

The coach needed to vent, and she called up Jantzi, who coaches Maggie Nichols.

“I definitely called her on the phone and cried my eyes out,” Haney said. “I felt so awful calling her, but I know she would help me and talk to me.”

Jantzi told her to focus on the gift: being there at the Olympics. That helped Haney immediately and her mood improved. It also helped that Hernandez cheered her up.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Well, it’s fuel for my fire, 2020,’ ” Haney said. “I got so excited.”

Laurie Hernandez
Laurie Hernandez shined on balance beam for the U.S. in team competition. (Getty Images)

Hernandez was her usual self once the competition started, even being captured on video telling herself “I got this” before her balance beam routine in the team competition. It’s something she does often, inspired by the mental coach Haney brought in for her, but the clip went viral on social media.

“Right before I was up there, about to compete, it really hit me, ‘Look, we’re at the Olympics!’ ” Hernandez said. “I was a little bit nervous and I had to give myself some confidence.”

She wanted the clip to be a message to the world beyond gymnastics.

“If you’re afraid of anything, having a rough day, talk to yourself,” Hernandez said. “Tell yourself, ‘I got this.’ ”

The plan post-Games is for Hernandez to do the Kellogg’s tour, then take a break. Haney thinks her prized pupil will be back in the gym around Thanksgiving.

The Human Emoji said she’s thinking about Rio and Rio only, but she doesn’t waver about her future.

Said Hernandez: “I’ll definitely be back in the gym.”

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