And so it begins. The Road to Paris 2024 officially kicks off this weekend in Frisco, Texas with the 2022 Winter Cup. It’s the first major elite competition of the new quadrennium and our first look of the year at some of the stars of the next generation for Team USA. For our 2022 Winter Cup preview, Click Here!
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Winter Cup 2021, One Year Later
By Christy Sandmaier
At the inaugural Winter Cup in Indianapolis for the U.S. women, Jordan Chiles and Laurie Hernandez captured the headlines. Chiles launched a campaign for the Tokyo Olympics that would ultimately take her all the way to a team silver medal, and 2016 Olympic gold and silver medalist Hernandez stepped back on the competition floor for the first time since the Rio Games debuting a floor routine from the Hamilton score; those first few beats of music officially announcing her comeback. I’ll never forget it.
Inside the arena, everyone was heavily masked and trying to stay socially-distanced as best they could. Media, used to being elbow to elbow in the press box, was separated by plexiglass partitions. Aside from a sprinkling of parents in a mostly cement and cavernous convention center, the seats were empty. It definitely wasn’t the (re)start to an Olympic year anyone imagined. Nevertheless, the unmistakable sights and sounds of synchronized warmups, new sequins, springboards and stuck landings were back. And it was glorious.
Chiles won the meet that day with the best competition we’d seen from her to date and Hernandez silenced many who said her comeback wasn’t possible, or at the very least only a publicity stunt. Reflecting at the conclusion of the meet, I wrote that all suddenly seemed right in the world of gymnastics, at least for a moment or two, and that “while the Road to Tokyo ‘Take 2’ is still long and winding, the U.S. women proved once again this weekend that superhero status has already been achieved.” The year away from competition – and months away from training for some – had been the ultimate challenge and the athletes truly rose to the occasion doing what great athletes do – staring down an obstacle and coming out stronger.
There are so many moments that stand out to me from that day a year ago in Indianapolis, but it was Chiles’ and Hernandez’s pure emotion, determination and presence I remember more than any score, start value or placement. The road that followed Winter Cup took different trajectories for these women, both of whom overcame so many personal obstacles just to be on the floor in 2021. Looking back this week at what they achieved, who they’ve become and where they’ve taken their careers over the last year was nothing short of inspirational.
From Question Mark to Clutch
In her final event, Jordan Chiles headed to beam with the first place position on the line. She was calm, cool and collected throughout her routine and landed the full-twisting double back dismount she competed for the first time in competition. There was a small hop forward, yes, but for Chiles it was mission accomplished. With her Spiderman-themed floor routine and soaring confidence, she had captured the first-ever Winter Cup Senior Women’s All-Around title.
What a long road it had been getting there.
At the start of the Olympic cycle, Chiles placed second All-Around at the 2017 U.S. Championships, her very first championships as a senior. But when all was said and done, she was left off the World Championship team. The next year she made her international debut at the Stuttgart World Cup where she finished third All-Around, followed by the Pacific Rim Championships where she brought home three gold medals (team, vault, and floor). However, when it came to naming the 2018 World Championship team, Chiles was once again left off.
In 2019 she packed her bags and moved over 2,000 miles away to Spring, Texas to train alongside Simone Biles at her family’s world-class training facility, World Champions Centre. It eventually made all the difference.
Chiles embraced the competition in Indianapolis and wasn’t afraid to let everyone see her personality and hear her voice, something nearly unheard of during previous quads for the women’s team. She was a new athlete, sending an early message to the Olympic selection committee to never count her out. When asked after the meet what being coached by Cecile and Laurent brought to her gymnastics and what she’s most proud of, Chiles told the media: “I think, everything. I found my love for the sport… I found my physical and mental health. I put what I know and how I am as a person out there. I showed people what they needed to see.”
And she showed them time and time again.
As it turned out, Winter Cup was only the beginning of what would be an incredible ride for Chiles in 2021. With each competition she was stronger and more confident, placing 3rd in the All-Around at U.S. Championships behind Biles, and eventual Olympic All-Around Champion, Sunisa Lee. A month later in St. Louis at Olympic Trials, Chiles’ shoulders heaved and the tears flowed as she let out every emotion she’d ever felt immediately after striking her final floor pose. Ready to quit the sport in 2018, Jordan Chiles was now Tokyo-bound.
At the Games, Chiles’ role shifted to something she never expected. Following Biles’ very unexpected withdrawal after the first rotation in team finals, Chiles suddenly found herself added to the bar line up and in the anchor spot on beam. In qualifications, she had struggled on both – barely hanging on to her Pak salto and hitting her legs on the ground on bars, and falling on her series and dismount on beam. Grips on, she hit the bar routine she’d been nailing all year. Hands to her chest before mounting beam, she took a deep breath and hit her routine as if she was made exactly for that moment. Her teammates, including Biles, jumped sky-high in celebration.
“I knew in my body I could pull out everything that I had,” she told the TODAY Show. “I did have to fill some humongous shoes. But it did it for a reason. I did it for [Simone].”
As part of Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, Chiles took a leading role alongside her teammates sharing the importance of embracing everyone’s own personal journey. “Coming through my journey, it took me a while to do that and get to where I am right now,” she told me in October. It’s something she’s no doubt drawing from competing as a student athlete for the UCLA Bruins.
College gymnastics is an adjustment and Chiles has had an up and down season so far on the competition floor. A definite bright spot came during the epic Utah vs. UCLA rivalry, where she scored her first collegiate perfect 10 for her floor routine. The routine earned over one million views on Twitter alone, getting retweeted by Biles and Lizzo, just to name a few.
— ESPN (@espn) February 5, 2022
From Winter Cup all the way to Westwood, Chiles has found strength in her journey and Olympic silver. And for me, whatever she achieves in her future in the sport is just icing. More importantly, she’s a strong woman with the world at her feet. She’s found her voice beautifully through every challenge and uphill climb she’s faced so far and is ready to pay it forward, “For the younger generations, I want them to also understand it’s okay to not be okay and to get the support that they need.”
From Human Emoji to Beautiful Human
The 2021 Winter Cup also stamped the very much-anticipated return of Laurie Hernandez.
Competing for the first time in four and half years and donning her Captain Marvel-inspired leotard, Hernandez showed up to impress and showed much of the sass and personality that fans remembered so well from the Rio quad where she was nicknamed the “human emoji.” She didn’t show full difficulty on floor or beam, the two events she competed, but Winter Cup looked to be a great launching pad for Hernandez.
While the nerves were certainly there that day for Hernandez, who said at first it all felt “terrifying,” she also showed up to have fun. We got a relaxed smile and quick wave out of her before warmups, where she was in the zone headphones on with new coach Jenny Zhang by her side. Zhang also coached the legendary Kyla Ross, together with Howie Liang at Gym-Max. Speaking to the media, Hernandez noted that Zhang, who saw her struggling in warmups with tumbling, asked her to take out some of the difficulty in her floor routine so Hernandez could simply focus on “just enjoying the competition.”
Following the meet, Hernandez took to Twitter posting clips of her new floor routine, tagging Lin Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.: “hey @Lin_Manuel @leslieodomjr, what do y’all think of my new floor routine” which Odom retweeted and congratulated her, emphasizing how impressed he was.
It was by all accounts, incredibly emotional at the very least to be in the arena and see Hernandez surrounded by comfort, care and support with a team who had her best interest at heart, more so than any routine or placement.
Following the 2016 Olympics, Hernandez took a two-year break to recover from the emotional and verbal abuse she endured at her previous gym. She found her own voice, a fresh, healthy approach to training and the ability to inspire others as much off the floor as on it. In Indianapolis, her teammates recognized just how much she brought to the sport, supporting and cheering her on at every turn.
For me, seeing Hernandez smile wide even through her mask throughout the meet, her eyes bright and that fist pump as she came down from the podium after hitting beam was everything. She was there, she was back. She was already a superhero.
Hernandez’s journey to Tokyo ended in Dallas at the U.S. Championships where she withdrew after hyperextending her left knee during beam warm-ups on Day 1. It was devastating for Hernandez, who had overcome so much to be back doing what she loves, only to have an ill-timed injury take away her opportunity to at least try. “Definitely heartbroken that this week didn’t quite go the way I’d planned,” she posted on social media. There would be no new Olympic hardware to add to her collection this time but Hernandez regrouped and found herself as part of NBC’s team at Trials and during the Games as a studio analyst for gymnastics on Peacock’s morning show, TOKYO Live.
She’s also been open about her mental health conditions, including as an advocate for positive coaching methods in the sport and embracing therapy outside of it. Like Chiles, Hernandez performed on the Gold Over America Tour in the fall of 2021, embracing her personal journey as part of the fabric of the tour’s overall message surrounding the support of mental health for athletes.
“I think the biggest thing that we’re hoping young athletes take away from it is just that it’s OK to talk about it,” said Hernandez of the show’s message. “We’re just hoping that it sparks the conversation, and it lets everybody know these things happen and these feelings happen and it’s OK. And you can talk about them.”
“Training for things like the Olympics or any competition, I don’t want to say it feels like do or die, but it’s really stressful and there’s a lot of pressure to do well,” she told me in July. “Being able to do gymnastics untethered and enjoy the sport for what it is, we get to share that energy. We get to share things that we love and inspire others to enjoy gymnastics or restart something that you’re passionate about.”
Hernandez also served as the emcee on tour and with her captivating charm, did an amazing job. Afterall, she’s a performer at heart. “For some reason, being called the “human emoji” has just stuck,” she said. “I like to think that being really expressive and bringing a lot of emotion, adding a lot of playfulness to it is one of the things I do best.”
Giving back has also been central to her focus. At the inaugural Laurie Hernandez Champions Challenge in December up and coming young gymnasts had the chance to meet Hernandez, ask her questions, and spend time with her after each session. The competition also served as a fundraiser and raised thousands of dollars for Puerto Rico. A second-generation American, Hernandez is the first American-born Latina to make the U.S. gymnastics team since 1984.
Wherever the next steps in her journey take her, Hernandez has already won. One look at her Instagram and you’ll see how much life has changed and how much she seems to be loving it. She inspired all of us with a comeback that was truly for herself. We admire the amount of courage and determination it took to get back on the competition floor and will forever remember the amount of joy she brought us as an athlete, but more importantly as a person.
“Doing the best you can matters,” she says, “and depending on where that takes you – being really proud of your journey and knowing that everybody’s story is different, and finding those qualities that make you different and letting those shine is what allows people to get to know the real you.”
And So It Begins, Again
This weekend in Frisco, the young women competing in Winter Cup will continue their own journeys in the sport, maybe setting the stage for an incredible NCAA career, a run at an Olympic Team, or both. Or, maybe something else entirely. Afterall, as we’ve seen, success is completely personal and every quad brings its own set of exciting twists and turns. We’ll see familiar faces and start to get to know a lot of new ones. Among them may be another Jordan Chiles or Laurie Hernandez. While comparisons to the previous quads and past teams and champions are inevitable, a new generation is emerging.
After Friday’s press conference, one word came to mind listening to Konnor McClain, Skye Blakely, eMjae Frazier and Sydney Barros speak: strong. No doubt inspired by the paths of those who went before them, perhaps it was Barros who summed it up best: “I just want to be 100% me.”
At the end of the day, each dream is theirs alone to dream, and their own superhero stories yet to be written.
Photos by Lloyd Smith and Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics and John Cheng (Gold Over America)
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