Meet Hezly Rivera, the 16-year-old ‘underdog’ on the heavily favored US Olympic gymnastics team

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Hezly Rivera planned to spend a significant portion of this summer learning how to drive.

The 16-year-old is going to have to postpone that learner’s permit test for a bit. She’s joining Simone Biles on the U.S. gymnastics team at the Olympics instead.

Heady territory for a self-proclaimed “underdog” who never expected to be here. Not that Rivera looked out of place competing against some of her idols at the U.S. Olympic trials. She earned her way onto the five-woman team by thriving over two days and eight tense rotations that tested the nerves of athletes whose resumes are packed with gold.

Rivera finished fifth in the all-around, tied for the top score on beam and placed a solid fourth on uneven bars, the two events where she’s likely to salute the judges during team qualifying on July 28.

Still, the 2023 U.S. junior champion admits she was “shocked” when she heard her name called late Sunday night. She hoped she’d done enough to at least earn a spot as an alternate. Instead, she will walk onto the floor at Bercy Arena as part of a group that will be heavily favored to finish atop the podium.

‘Just trust myself’

It’s a moment Rivera didn’t exactly anticipate after a shaky start in the run-up to the Olympic trials. She finished a distant 24th at the U.S. Classic in mid-May, failing to place better than 25th on any event.

Sure, weather issues that disrupted her travel plans to Hartford, Connecticut, messed with her head. But that was just an excuse.

The reality is she had a bad meet. That’s it. They happen. Rivera — who trains out of the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in the Dallas area — simply plowed forward. She buried herself in “pressure sets” at the gym and tried not to get ahead of herself.

“I was like, ‘OK, let’s just trust myself here and do what I always do in the gym,’” Rivera said.

And she did. The gymnast who started training senior elite-level routines well before she needed them found herself playing in confetti on the Target Center floor on Sunday night and hugging the women she’s long looked up to, women who are no long stars but peers.

“I definitely love competing with the senior crowd and all the seniors,” Rivera said. “You know, they’re all so sweet and supportive and always cheering you on, and the energy is just so big. So I really love that.”

And her somewhat unexpected arrival gives the oldest U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team ever a welcome jolt of youth.

From idols to teammates

On a roster filled with 20-somethings from Biles (27) to reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee (21), Rivera, who celebrated her 16th birthday less than a month ago, is a throwback to a time — not so long ago — when the U.S. Olympic roster was stuffed with teenagers.

“I feel so old compared to her,” Lee said with a laugh. “I can’t imagine how Simone feels.”

Biles — who briefly met Rivera before the 2016 Olympics while Rivera was still in elementary school — joked it might be up to the rest of the team to find a way to get her behind the wheel ahead of Paris. Biles was probably kidding. She’s not, however, when she says she’s impressed by the maturity Rivera showed during a meet that’s every bit as high stakes as what awaits in France.

“We’re really excited to kind of show her the ropes,” Biles said. “And at least she doesn’t have to do it alone. She has four veterans that have been there before.”

A place Rivera has long wanted to go, a place she is going ahead of schedule. She sat transfixed when Biles won the Olympic title at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. During the delayed Tokyo Games in 2021, she envisioned being in that position by Los Angeles in 2028.

Fate — top contenders Shilese Jones, Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello were forced to withdraw after getting hurt in Minneapolis, creating an opportunity — and Rivera’s drive and preternatural talent had other plans.

Seizing her chance

“She’s just so calm, cool and collected,” said U.S. women’s national team strategic lead Alicia Sacramone Quinn, who was on the three-person selection committee. “She had a few meets as a junior that were rough and you need those rough meets to build some character and build that experience and she came out and I asked her, ‘Are you nervous?’ And she’s like, ‘Nope.’”

Rivera even had the presence of mind to compliment Quinn on her outfit, a hint that she wasn’t exactly getting caught up in the enormity of the moment, something Rivera admits gets her “all scrambled and stuff.”

There was no scrambling during trials, just the steely resolve of an athlete who peaked at the right time. There were tears afterward with her family, who moved from New Jersey to Texas so Rivera could train at one of the premier gyms in the country.

She is well aware of the sacrifices others have made to get her to this point. The next six weeks are as much about those who have guided her as it is about anything else.

The young girl who got into gymnastics by attending a friend’s birthday party long ago will step on the biggest stage in the world on a star-studded group in which she very much belongs.

So yeah, the driving lessons can wait. Anyone can get their license. Very few earn the opportunity Rivera — if somewhat unexpectedly — earned. And she knows it.

“I’m going to document everything … keep memories of it and just be the happiest version of myself,” she said. “Because I made it here.”


AP Summer Olympics:

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