The Olympic gold medalist shares how she’s taking care of her mental and physical health while continuing to recover from the knee injury that sidelined her for the 2021 games.
During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Laurie Hernandez was flying high.
She earned a silver medal on the balance beam and was part of the legendary “Final Five,” helping the United States win gold in the team event. After a whirlwind break from competition that saw her in television appearances on the likes of “Dancing with the Stars” and as an author of two New York Times Bestseller books, she returned to competition with her eyes set on Tokyo 2020.
An injury changed those plans. In June, during warmups for the 2021 U.S. championships (one of the competitions en route to the Olympic Games), she suffered a hyperextended knee,when your knee bends back to a straightened position.
Hernandez told Healthline in a Zoom interview that she landed on her straightened leg from a high distance when she dismounted from the balance beam.
What resulted was a bone bruise, fluid buildup, a torn meniscus, and a cyst. She persevered to compete in the beam routine on the first night but ultimately withdrew from competition and will not be competing with the U.S. team in Tokyo this year.
“It’s just been a lot of being mindful about it all,” Hernandez said when asked how she’s managing the injury and her thwarted Olympics goals. “When I first landed, the muscles around my knee, so, my quad and my hamstring completely stopped firing, because that’s what your body does when there is trauma to a physical area. Everything around it seems to shut down, so, during competition I still tried to compete, but it was bad because I was so out of it — I don’t know how I did it.”
Today, Hernandez is recalibrating and approaching Tokyo 2020 in a new way.
Throughout the broadcasts of the games, Hernandez will be seen, along with six other athletes, in “Our Collective Health,” an ad from Eli Lilly and Co. about the personal health challenges of Olympians, Paralympians, and their loved ones to promote greater health equity in the United States. She will serve as an offsite analyst, commenting on the competitions she would have been a part of.
“It’s definitely a new experience to go in as someone commentating and as a spectator and not being out on the floor, so I think it’s going to take me a second to get used to that. It’s still so fresh. I’ll definitely be keeping my mind open to new opportunities and learning the ropes from the other side of the screen,” she added.
For Hernandez, being part of the ad campaign was personal. She grew up knowing her dad was managing and living with type 2 diabetes, while her grandmother also had type 1 diabetes. Hernandez said she doesn’t know a reality different from where her dad had to manage his chronic condition, pricking his finger and always being cognizant of his blood sugar levels. She said her grandmother was constantly giving herself shots to manage her diabetes.
“I grew up watching people constantly checking in with themselves and taking care of themselves, and as a professional athlete, it was really good representation for me seeing if I had an injury, if something was off, being proactive about it, taking care of myself,” she said. “It was the right thing to do just to watch.”
Her role as a health ambassador instead of an athlete during these games has taken her some getting used to. Still, Hernandez said she appreciates the opportunity to head into the games knowing she can share her family’s stories and encourage others to take care of themselves.
Hernandez said that for about a week or 2 after her initial injury, she would try to walk, and her knee would “just lock out behind me.” She said that about a month since her injury, she’s been monitoring the meniscus tear to see if it has gotten better. If things don’t improve, she assumes surgery will be needed.
One thing that has been crucial for her has been relying on a collaborative healthcare team of professionals to help her heal.
“I definitely do have a ‘team,’ an inner squad of physical therapists and doctors and therapists who are all over it. Getting everybody in the loop has definitely been an easy thing just because they all talk to each other already, but at the same time,” she said.
Hernandez said that when consulting with her doctors and therapists, it’s been important to table talks of the future — whether it be a return to competition or just questions of “what’s next?” — for now.
Instead, she and her medical team have been zeroing in on the present and making sure she gets well and her knee improves.
“If I want to come back [to competition], or if I want to just run and do normal things, it’s important that I’m safe to do that without thinking twice about it. So, I just have a wonderful team,” she stressed.
When managing a sports injury like the one Hernandez is recovering from, devising that collaborative group of clinicians who all specialize in various aspects of your care — from physical therapy to your overall health, to psychological care, to surgery if needed — is crucial, said Dr. Edward R. Laskowski, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional subspecialty certification in sports medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“The hard work of rehabilitation begins after a surgery or injury, and each member of the sports medicine team plays an integral role in sports injury treatment and recovery. A sports medicine-trained physician is essential to appropriately diagnose the injury and prescribe a treatment plan. In many cases, surgery may be necessary to repair damaged ligament, cartilage, or other injured structures,” Laskowski told Healthline.
“After the surgery, physical therapy is essential to appropriately progress and strengthen the injured area while maintaining whole-body fitness.”
Laskowski, who is not affiliated with Hernandez or the Lilly campaign, said that throughout the rehabilitation process, sports psychology can also assist with strategies for “coping with loss of function and loss of performing your sport as well as preparing for rehabilitation and regaining the confidence necessary to compete again at the highest levels.”
A final, crucial part of sports medical care involves sports conditioning and performance professionals who assist with “sport-specific skill training and returning the athlete to their maximal level of function and performance in their sport,” he added.
“And this model is bidirectional in that at any step, problems may be identified in the athlete which may prompt re-evaluation by another member of the care team,” Laskowski said. “For example, the performance coach may identify a movement flaw, which may prompt re-evaluation by the physical therapist or the physician team.”
In a case like what Hernandez has been facing, how hard is it to move from a mindset of “competition” to “recovery?”
“It can be very challenging to have an injury derail your momentum when you are preparing for a competition or major sporting event. During training, the focus of the athlete and much of their time and energy is devoted to improving their performance to compete at a high level. Training also is staged to prepare the athlete to peak at just the right time for competition,” Laskowski explained. “An injury entirely changes this focus and trajectory, and also produces a sense of loss at not being able to do what they were doing before.”
Laskowski said that sometimes, this loss can “be quite profound” and lead to significant grief and depression. This is why a sports psychologist is necessary for one’s sports medicine healthcare team.
He added that this part of the athlete’s healthcare “is essential in helping the athlete get through this period and reframe their mindset to recovery and regaining of skills and function.”
Also, “the sports medicine healthcare team can also identify more severe cases of depression that may need specific treatment,” he added.
Hernandez said that anyone who might be dealing with a similar health challenge or injury — maybe you’re a student-athlete who will be out of competition for a while, or you’ve just been diagnosed with a chronic condition — needs to understand that oftentimes most injuries take us by surprise. It’s not often that it’s something you’re expecting.
“A lot of them can happen by surprise, and when they do, it can be discouraging and even depressing because, especially when it’s in a lower extremity that you’re using to go out and explore and be outside, sometimes not being able to have that access as one typically would as an able-bodied person or somebody [who is] physically healthy, it can be discouraging,” she said.
Hernandez said that being able to accept the injury and then seek support is crucial. She feels lucky that she can still walk around but added that for those who’ve just had surgery or who have some impairment from an injury, it’s necessary to “allow yourself to heal.”
“It just involves a lot of self-care and checking in with yourself,” she added.
Laskowski said that getting ready to return to a sport from an injury involves patience and care.
“Progression is based on what type of intervention or surgery was performed and on tissue healing as well as gradually re-establishing strength, stability, and proper movement patterns,” he said. “‘Perfect practice’ is key at each level of progression, and we don’t want to establish any bad movement patterns or compensations that may predispose to future injury or hinder optimum performance.”
He explained that a sports medicine specialist would never want to advance someone to the next level in their training before they are ready. This could bring the risk of re-injury or potentially putting the athlete at risk for new health complications and problems.
“As tissue healing, strength, and stability are regained, sport-specific movement patterns are introduced. We also want to correct any flaws in technique or movement that may have initially contributed to the injury. This often takes time, as we are, in essence, ‘reprogramming’ movement patterns that may have been present for years,” Laskowski said.
Hernandez said she’s looking forward to rooting for the U.S. team and that, despite hardship, she said this time in her life has led to reflection on what is truly important. When it comes to some of the themes tied to the campaign she’s a part of, she said it goes back to what she has been focusing on since her injury in June.
“It’s important to kind of encourage people to check-in and take care of themselves and spread the love to the people around them,” Hernandez said.