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By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Laurie Hernandez is determined not be defined by the mental abuse she suffered under her former coach and having relocated from New Jersey to California, the American gymnast is hoping the fresh start will allow her to win more Olympic medals.
After winning two medals at the 2016 Rio Games, Hernandez opted to take a break from the sport that had dominated her young life. But two years into her hiatus, she realised the psychological abuse she had faced from coach Maggie Haney had nothing to do with gymnastics.
"I don't hate the sport and I didn't hate the sport," Hernandez told Reuters. "I didn't like the environment that I was in."
Hernandez went public in April, describing on social media how Haney humiliated her, commented on her weight and made her train despite multiple injuries. Due to the abuse, Hernandez developed an eating disorder.
Hernandez testified against Haney at a USA Gymnastics hearing that led to the coach being suspended for eight years by the sport's American governing body.
"It was really difficult, especially during an Olympic year and trying to train for a really big competition," said Hernandez, 20. "Pushing (yourself) to a physical limit and then also mentally having to go back and talk about it."
Hernandez, who won silver on the balance beam and gold in the team competition in Rio, said the ban marked a major step toward addressing psychologically abusive behaviour in the sport.
"We're in 2020 and we can't treat people like we used to a couple of decades ago," Hernandez said. "The times are changing, and it's time to be really respectful to everybody -- especially when it comes to kids."
Separately, USA Gymnastics has also been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal involving former team doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison after hundreds of women testified against him.
During her time away from gymnastics, Hernandez travelled, competed in Dancing with the Stars and wrote a children's book.
Now back in training, she advocates for mental health. She was also featured in "Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women's Gymnastics," a documentary series about the lives of elite gymnasts launched on YouTube last month.
When away from the sport, Hernandez knew she needed to make drastic changes in order to return. In 2018 she moved to California from her native New Jersey to train with different coaches.
"I want to make the Olympic team. That's the reason why I'm back," she said. "But the most important part for me is that I'm feeling safe and that I'm loving what I do."
With the Tokyo Olympics postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hernandez has had more time to hone her technique and upgrade her routines.
"Because the Olympics were delayed, it's going to be that much sweeter," she said. "I think a lot of people across the globe are just so excited to see what we can achieve and get back out there. It's going to be great."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)