Olympic gymnast Hernandez enjoys solid return at Winter Cup

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Laurie Hernandez performs in the floor exercise during the Winter Cup gymnastics competition, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The nerves were there. They were unavoidable, really. Yet rather than greet them with anxiety or fear as she did the last time she stood on the competition floor, Laurie Hernandez embraced them.

Yes, it's been more than four years — a lifetime and then some in women's gymnastics — since she walked off the podium at the 2016 Olympics with a star-making smile and a pair of medals around her neck. Her journey since leaving Brazil included dabbling in the trappings that came with newfound stardom, moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles and parting with a coach currently serving a 5-year suspension for abusive behavior.

Oh, and then there's the dash of skepticism about whether her comeback was legit.

Yet all of it faded into the background on Saturday at the Winter Cup in Indianapolis. The electric smile — one she insists is no longer choreographed but sincere — returned. And while her performance, a fifth on balance beam and 11th on floor exercise after she watered down her final tumbling pass in the name of safety, provided evidence of just how long she'd been away, her return was a victory in itself.

“It was like coming back as a new person,” Hernandez said.

She was talking about herself. She might as well have been talking about her sport. The meet was the first major non-invitational event in more than 15 months for almost the entire field after the COVID-19 pandemic forced almost the entire 2020 competition calendar to be canceled and the Tokyo Olympics postponed until this summer.

Even in a largely empty arena filled with cardboard cutouts and the exclamations of the broadcast announcing team echoing in place of applause, it felt sort of normal.

“There’s like those little butterflies that come and go,” said Hernandez, now 20. “But what’s been happening a lot within the last year or so is that like, I’ll do a beam routine and then halfway through, I kind of settle into my own body and it just feels like I can relax and be grounded. And that’s kind of what happened today.”