Olympic Gymnast Laurie Hernandez Speaks Out About the Pressure Put on Athletes: 'You Have to Be Perfect'
Welcome to Deep Dives, a Health video series where inspiring people talk about a health topic that's meaningful to them and share relatable stories around health and wellness. Watch Laurie Hernandez's Deep Dive above!
Gymnastics is a sport that puts strong demands on the body, as anyone who's been keeping up with Simone Biles' performance at this summer's Olympics in Tokyo knows. But it's also demanding in other ways, and Laurie Hernandez, 21, gold and silver medalist at the 2016 Olympics, understands this firsthand. "Gymnastics is such a preppy sport," Hernandez tells Health. "Everything needs to be perfect. Your hair has to be perfect. Your eyebrows, your makeup, your leotard, your routines. You have to be perfect—that includes how you look and your body type."
Eventually, this culture of perfection influenced Hernandez's eating habits. "There were disordered eating patterns that were definitely present, especially throughout puberty," she recalls. "That led to a lot of ups and downs in my mental health journey. I remember hearing constantly [when I was] growing up, especially when I hit 12 and 13, 'Her body's getting boxy.'" The comments hurt, especially because she was striving hard to please her coaches. "It was hard because I was doing all these things to please other people. There was a lot of insecurity, a lot of binge eating happening."
Things got particularly bad during the 2016 Olympics, when strict dietary restrictions were given to Hernandez and her team members. "Part of the Olympics in 2016: We were not allowed to eat carbs. We were literally told no carbs," Hernandez says. "I was like, 'That is beyond me, but okay.' I just remember I was so hungry. There was a lot of clashing in terms of me and food—not wanting to eat at all and then wanting to eat everything under the sun."
Hernandez began seeing a therapist during Olympics, and that helped her dial back the pressure. "Seeing just a regular therapist who had no idea where I was, doesn't know my background—I had to give all this information and share it [with them]," Hernandez says. "It was the best thing I did." Rather than focusing on how to improve her athletic performance, her therapist helped her achieve mental well-being. "There's this unbiased opinion. It's not, How can I help you become the best athlete? It's How can I help you be comfortable being a person? That felt good."
Watch the rest of Hernandez's deep dive in the video above.
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