Two-time Olympic medalist and Dancing With the Stars champion Lori Hernandez discussed gymnastics and mental health in a conversation Friday night. During the event, Hernandez shared that her journey to Team USA was marked by injuries, setbacks and resilience.
The Cornell University Program Board, in collaboration with La Asociacion Latina, hosted the live conversation and Q&A.
When the 15-year-old home-schooled Hernandez had to stop her gymnastics training due to a strained VMO muscle, she found herself suffering from all the signs of burnout and overwhelmed by the pressures of her sport. So, in March 2016, she quit.
Although it only lasted three days, it only lasted three days — but Hernandez reflected on her withdrawal as just one of many instances where mental health has been a central theme throughout her gymnastics career.
When Hernandez competed at her first Elite Nationals, she placed 22nd out of 23 girls. In the face of this failure, she remembered her mother’s unwavering support.
“My mother is a social worker and a therapist, my sister is also a therapist. Even though I’m Puerto Rican — a lot of times in Hispanic households, mental health isn’t something that’s usually talked about — my mom wanted me to talk about my feelings all the time,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez remembers that after the race, her mother took her out for ice cream to celebrate, even though she didn’t win.
“I look back on that memory and I admit that it instilled in me his concept of gratitude and just embracing where you are without any expectations of what’s coming or what’s happened,” Hernandez said.
Throughout the night, Hernandez emphasized the importance of her support system, especially in times of difficulty.
“My moments where I wanted to leave were when my parents and siblings came together and gave love,” Hernandez said.
Yet Hernandez also described feelings of intense burnout, which led to her almost giving up gymnastics altogether.
“When it comes to burnout, you need to schedule breaks for yourself. You need to make time for sleep. You need to take time to eat. You should take the time to connect with your community. If you don’t take that time, you burn out again in your body and your brain will decide when to take a break and that will be the most uncomfortable point in your life,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said that after winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she continued to rethink the way she trained to try to prevent burnout.
“In our society, we are taught that you have to give 110 percent every day. I remember telling my therapist, ‘I’m giving 200 percent every day and I’m not getting better,'” Hernandez said. “I remember him telling me the goal is not to die trying, but to see how long you can survive before the end .”
After her speech, she opened the floor to the audience for a Q&A moderated by Cornell gymnast Calista Brady ’24.
Audience members asked questions about how Hernandez overcomes mental blocks, the lessons she’s learned in her career and how she deals with new people as a freshman at NYU.
CUPB head of selections Mimi Kanter explained why Hernandez stood out as an exciting speaker to bring to campus.
“To be an Olympian is to be in the highest possible echelon of your sport,” Kanter said. “Also, the fact that she’s a fellow student at New York State is really cool.”
Hernandez concluded the panel discussion by relating her mental health journey in gymnastics to that in her daily life now as a student.
“As a student, the feeling I get before competing is the same feeling I get before midterms. Anxiety is anxiety. Take what I’ve said in the last 25 minutes and apply it to your own life — where can you relax?” Hernandez said. “It’s important to take care of other people, but don’t forget about yourself. Wait there. You will do it.”