The last time U.S. gymnast Laurie Hernandez put on a leotard, raised her hand to the judges and performed a routine, she won balance beam silver at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Nearly five years later, the 20-year-old is set to return to competition Saturday (27 February) at USA Gymnastics’ Winter Cup event in Indianapolis. Hernandez is expected to compete on the balance beam and floor exercise.
The three-day event features Team USA’s best Level 10 athletes competing in Friday’s Nastia Liukin Cup and then men’s and women’s junior and senior elites in sessions Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday.
Hernandez took nearly two years away from the sport, returning to full-time training in late 2018 after a cross-country move from New Jersey to Los Angeles. That left her with less than two years to prepare for a second trip to the Games.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, postponing the Tokyo Games by a year.
“I knew I was late,” Hernandez told Olympic Channel last April during an Instagram live. “We knew it was going to be a really short amount of time. It feels for me like I’m going to be a lot more prepared. It’s comforting, more time. It’s all anybody could really ask for, I think.”
That’s borne out in social media posts from the effervescent Hernandez, who has continued to show her progress in the year since the Games were pushed.
Tom Forster, the U.S. women’s high performance director, agrees that the Olympic champion has made good use of the extra time.
“[She] looks good. This extra time has really helped her,” he told Olympic Channel earlier this month. “It's really been beneficial for her to get closer to where she needs to be.”
And gymnastics fans can be certain all eyes will be on Hernandez when she takes to the competition floor Saturday afternoon.
Part of the story at Winter Cup will be about who won't be competing. The best male and female gymnasts in the United States since 2013 – Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak – will each be missing in Indianapolis.
Biles, who hasn’t lost an all-around competition since taking the U.S. title in 2013, hardly needs the practice and plans to open her 2021 season at the Tokyo World Cup in early May. She is also likely pacing herself, having spoken openly about the mental toll an additional year in the sport has taken on her.
“I was like, 'I really don't know how I'm gonna do this. Like, another year out? I don't think it's possible for me at this point mentally,’” Biles said in a recent 60 minutes interview.
Mikulak, who like Biles has taken U.S. titles in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, for his part missed weeks of training in late 2020 after being forced to quarantine when his fiancé contracted COVID-19.
2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd, who stars in the Olympic Channel series All Around, had expected to compete but, like Mikulak, lost training time after having to quarantine due to close contact with a COVID positive person. Hurd is one of the Americans who has competed most recently, having looked strong en route to a victory March 2020’s American Cup.
Other notable absences include 2019 World team members Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner and Kara Eaker. Skinner is likely working on returning to training after a bout with COVID-19 landed her in the hospital.
The Winter Cup will be the first chance in this second Olympic season in a row for the athletes to make a statement and show that they will be in contention to make what will surely be an incredibly competitive U.S. team.
Only two members of the 2019 World Championships team that dominated competition are set to compete in Indianapolis this weekend: Jade Carey and Sunisa Lee. Carey has mathematically secured a direct qualification to the Tokyo Games by virtue of having won the vault and floor exercise standings in the International Gymnastics Federation’s apparatus World Cup series.
Her teammate, Riley McCusker, told Olympic Channel earlier this month she planned to make her return to competition at Winter Cup on at least two events (uneven bars and balance beam).
Emma Malabuyo is also expected to compete. Malabuyo was once a promising rising star, finishing runner-up as a junior at the 2017 U.S. championships, but injuries have derailed her. Malabuyo last competed at the 2019 Jesolo Trophy in early March after a broken tibia ended her season before the U.S. Classic and U.S Championships.
Other women to watch include Kayla DiCello who finished runner-up to Hurd at last year’s American Cup, and Jordan Chiles, who moved to train with Biles in 2019. Chiles competed earlier this month at the WOGA Classic and posted impressive scores including a 14.850 on vault, a 14.400 on bars, a 14.300 on balance beam and a 55.450 in the all-around.
“Jordan Chiles looks better than I've seen her in a long time,” Forster said. “She's feels healthier than she's ever felt.”
What about the newly eligible athletes?
Another element to keep an eye on will be the performance of a trio of newly age-eligible women. With the Olympics postponed a year, Konnor McClain, Skye Blakely and Sydney Barrows, all of whom were members of the 2019 Junior worlds team, suddenly find themselves eligible for the Tokyo Games.
“Their plan has been switched if they really want to try to make it for 2021,” said Forster of the newly eligible athletes. “That’s going to be that's going to be a tough nut to do. They did have time off at least, but a lot of them were quarantined, so they really were not allowed to take advantage of the time that they needed.
“The biggest challenge for them really is that they're not able to go out and show, ‘Hey, this is how I compete internationally.’”
Moldauer, Whittenburg and Wynn highlight men’s field
With Mikulak’s absence, the men's title will be up for grabs. Three men in the field have previously won world bronze medals: Yul Moldauer, Donnell Whittenburg and Brandon Wynn.
Look for Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. all-around champion, to challenge for the top spot. Meanwhile both Whittenburg and Wynn will be looking to prove themselves once again. Whittenburg last competed at the U.S. World Selection camp when he finished eighth in the all-around. Since that competition, he’s move from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado to Wisconsin.
Wynn is making his first competitive appearance since the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. The 32-year-old will want to start to make his case as a rings specialist, a position made more difficult with the U.S. men’s ability to qualify a specialist position to Tokyo 2020 in doubt.
Other men to watch include 2019 World team member Shane Wiskus, two-time World team alternate Allan Bower, 2017 world team member Marvin Kimble and up-and-comer Paul Juda, who is the NCAA’s top-ranked athlete.