U.S. Olympic medalist visited ECU to discuss positivity, mental health

Retired athlete and U.S. Olympic gold and silver medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez visited East Carolina University on Jan. 18 to share messages of acceptance, positivity and mental health advocacy with the public. She spoke to various groups throughout the day, including ECU students, faculty and staff, and the Greenville community as the final of two guests in the 2023-24 Voyages of Discovery Series, hosted by the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences. Hernandez’s visit was co-sponsored by the Honors College and this year’s season focused on the theme of inspiring hope and healing.

Voyages Series donor and sponsor Harvey Wooten helped make Hernandez’s visit to ECU possible. (Photo by Rob Taylor Photography & Design.)

“From standing on an Olympic podium to standing here tonight, Ms. Hernandez has utilized her platform to inspire hope and healing,” said Dr. Allison Danell, dean of Harriot College, who also urged the audience, in whatever roles they hold, to utilize the platforms upon which they stand to make a major difference in the world.

“You don’t have to be a dean, a famous actor or an Olympian to inspire hope and healing,” she said.

Hernandez, a sophomore and acting major in the drama department at New York University, gave a short presentation titled, “I’ve Got This,” and then sat down with a faculty host for an open dialogue, followed by questions from the audience.

Hernandez stated that growing up Latina was a wonderful experience of learning about her Puerto Rican culture of gratitude, community and treating everyone like family. She said her culture shaped who she is today and that her parents support her in all her endeavors, including giving her the space and time to find herself without judgment.

“Being able to grow up Latina is such a wonderful experience and something I haven’t taken for granted,” she said.

As a mental health advocate, Hernandez is a strong proponent of therapy and talking to others about a person’s feelings and how they are doing in life. She touched on this point many times throughout the day, including when discussing her mother and sister’s careers as social workers and checking in with one’s self.

Hernandez shared her messages of acceptance, positivity and mental health awareness and advocacy with students and young athletes during her visit to ECU. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)

“I love therapy. I prioritize it by not canceling on my therapist,” she said. “I think the best part about therapy is being honest. Taking time to understand where you are in life, what you are doing, how you feel and self-reflection is wonderful.”

One of the times Hernandez said she felt most brave was when she did her first interview on mental health because she could openly talk about the true struggles of depression, ADHD and anxiety, an obstacle she dealt with for years while training and competing.

“You don’t have to be fearless to do hard things and it’s okay to be scared,” she said.

As an athlete, Hernandez said she trained for 11 years before going to the Rio Olympics in 2016, at the age of 16. Paying attention to how her mind was reacting to various pressures was also important, she said. Her mom told her that her nerves and performance anxiety were normal and did not make her a bad athlete. When asked for her advice, Hernandez talks to other athletes about the mental aspect of training and competing.

Throughout the night, Hernandez’s conversation with the audience included overcoming imposter syndrome, believing in one’s self and working hard to accomplish your goals.

Her parents also told her, “If you want it, work hard and go get it.”

“Sometimes our brains get in the way,” Hernandez said. “I refer to it as my little gremlin on my shoulder. My anxiety gremlin, Steve.”

She said Steve crept into her head and made her think she couldn’t do things or that she had to give up.

Hernandez said the key is to remind yourself that whoever lets you in, whether that is in athletics, school or a job, that person sees something in you and believes in you – that you can accomplish what you are there to do.

A young girl in the audience asked Hernandez what keeps her going when times are hard. She replied in a way that may be applied to many aspects of a person’s life. Specifically in gymnastics, she said it was hard to watch others get skills quicker than her, but finding a balance of who she was as a gymnast relied on consistency.

“There is a place for you, and if you quit before you find it, then you never know what it is. So, hang in there,” she said.

Since retiring from gymnastics, Hernandez now focuses on her education, her mental health and sharing her message of staying positive.

“I’ve learned the possibility of achieving perfection is slim, but the fun part is enjoying the process and doing the best that I can.”

Hernandez enthralled the audience as she rounded out this year’s Voyages season with the theme of inspiring hope and healing. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)