Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez on prioritizing her health, being ‘proactive’ and ‘preventative’

Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez talks about supporting her father, who has type 2 diabetes, andd getting mentally prepared for competition. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez talks about supporting her father, who has type 2 diabetes, andd getting mentally prepared for competition. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

The 2021 Olympics is in full swing and has brought about important conversations beyond the world of sports, which is right up the alley of two-time gold medalist Laurie Hernandez. The 21-year-old gymnast has used her platform to promote body confidence, mental health and other important issues, and to relate to her fans through her own experiences.

Now Hernandez is partnering with Team Lilly — a pairing of global biopharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee — to bring awareness to type 2 diabetes, something she knows well from watching her father's struggles and triumphs with the condition.

"He's had type 2 diabetes since I came out of the womb so he's been working with that for a very long time," she tells Yahoo Life. "I watched him prick his finger and take medicine for it, and just constantly take the time to take care of himself. And as a kid, when you watch someone that you admire do something like that, it does become a priority and it is inspiring, and I'm really proud of him."

Read on as Hernandez opens up about supporting her family through health challenges, as well as how she unwinds and gets herself prepared for the Olympics.

What advice would you offer to others who, like you, are watching family members face health challenges?

I think the biggest thing that someone could do [is] just give love and support and ask where I can help and where I'm needed, and know that they always have me whenever they need somebody to lean on. And not shaming anybody for any of the ways that they do things. Like, I understand, my dad has to eat as healthy as he can in order to keep his blood sugar levels [in] the right place … [But I try not to] reprimand him if he wants, like, sugar, [instead] figuring out a way to implement that in a way that still keeps him safe…So just being able to meet people where they're at and to love them where they're at, not where you want them to be, I think that's the most important.

How do you prioritize your health?

It's just being in tune with my body, especially at practice. If I feel that something is off, which happens often, [I'm] saying something about it, I'm doing something about it. Like if I'm feeling really tense, all right, maybe we should go to acupuncture. If I have a muscle that's just cramping up and not working, like let's do cryotherapy, let's ice. If my shoulder feels like it's not working the way that I want it to when I'm at physical therapy, [it’s about] saying something [so] we can work on that. It's really not just beating around the bush around your own health, but it's being proactive about it and also being preventative about it.

What things do you do to get yourself mentally and emotionally prepared for being on the world stage of the Olympics?

Getting mentally, emotionally and physically prepared can feel like three completely different tasks, and I have to remind myself that they are all connected — and when I'm able to balance them, that's when I can reach my full potential and be able to be the best self that I can be. Being able to journal and do my best to communicate while I'm at practice, if something is going right or not, has been a really important part of the journey.

What are some ways that you destress?

One of the main ways is just going for a drive, especially if I have a really long workout and it's been frustrating. As someone who's quite introverted, being able to just be in my car and just to go and not put a GPS on and play the music I want to play, it feels so freeing…after exerting my body so much. And also just being able to create — that makes me feel like I'm using a different part of my brain that I don't use during practice, whether that be writing or playing music. I feel like I get reconnected every time I make something new.

Do you have any self-care rituals that you use to brighten your day?

Every night I'm always putting on a diffuser with lavender and eucalyptus in it. Usually I'll fall asleep to some kind of sound or music, or one of those YouTube frequency sleep noises. I take a big breath and I can smell lavender, it just makes me feel centered and more relaxed. So I think that's the biggest thing, ’cause if I don't sleep well, then I don't feel functional.

You have spoken about body confidence. Why is that important?

We've been seeing a little bit more body representation in media, but it's still not enough, because every physical body is different. It was quite an interesting thing to go to the Olympics at 16 and, looking back now, it was like, “Oh, I had a lot of, like, disordered eating patterns that were happening before then.” And then hearing [people say] “that was the best shape of your life,” I was like, “I don't know if I was actually my best self there. Like, I don't think I was my healthiest there.” And…why are you talking about my body in the first place?” So, hitting puberty in the public eye, that was all I was hearing about, was how my body looked — and I was 17 and it's just not necessary at all.

And so the only way that I felt I could…tackle it was to talk about it and be like, “this isn't cool, I don't like this. I'm growing and that's normal and that's okay.” And the more I talked about it, the more I would get girls my age being like, “Thank you, thank you. I am hitting puberty. My body is changing.” That's exactly what it's supposed to do. And it's not normalized.

Do you have a mantra that you live by?

The one that I used when I was 16 was, “I got this,” and that turned into a meme. They got a closeup of that and I became a GIF. So that was quite funny. And I still do use that one every so often…now, it started off as a joke, but now it's a serious thing, which is from Star Wars when one of the characters is like, “Oh no, never tell me the odds.” When you have a high pressure situation, I don't know what's going to happen, [so] do not tell me the odds. I’m just going to try.

You have been very active on social media. How has that impacted your health?

Social media is a really interesting place. I do feel like there's different pieces of me on different platforms. Like Instagram, I feel like I have to be really careful because people are just ruthless on that. They'll just kind of go for it. Whereas Twitter, I definitely feel like things are more connected and it's funnier and it is ruthless, but depending on what side of Twitter you're on, it's good ruthless. It's funny. Then [it’s] kind of same with TikTok.

But it definitely has taken a toll, especially when something really big happens. I have a platform and I do feel this responsibility to open up and to share this [issue] that I feel is very important, but it also adds a lot of pressure. Because then it's like, I am very small [and] sometimes I feel like I don't know what I'm doing. And people will pick up on it if you don't know what you're doing. That's why it can get so intimidating.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.