Meet Hezly Rivera, gymnast who will make Olympic debut alongside veterans

Before the second day of the women’s competition at U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials officially began, 80 percent of the five-person team was virtually locked in. 

Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey had separated themselves from a field depleted by injuries on night one to claim the top four spots in the all-around standings, and the quartet of Tokyo Olympians fit together to form a well-rounded team with individual medal potential across multiple events. 

But the Paris Olympics, unlike the Tokyo Games, will feature five-person teams in the artistic gymnastics events. Three contenders who were firmly in the mix to make the team — Shilese Jones, Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello — withdrew from the trials because of injuries that occurred while in Minneapolis for the meet. Jones, a prohibitive favorite to make the team, didn’t compete Sunday after injuring her knee warming up a vault Friday. Blakely ruptured her Achilles during podium training Wednesday before competition began, and DiCello sustained the same injury on her first vault of the meet Friday. 

After two days of intense, unpredictable competition, Hezly Rivera earned her spot on the squad that boasts four seasoned veterans. 

The Olympic team final takes a “three up, three count” format in which three athletes compete on each apparatus and all three scores count. The U.S. could fill the three spots on each event with a trio out of Biles, Lee, Chiles and Carey, but that combination has slight weak spots on uneven bars and balance beam that could be improved with the addition of a gymnast who can be put into the lineup to contribute a few more tenths. 

Enter Rivera.

The 2023 junior all-around national champion made her senior elite debut earlier this year and just turned 16 at the beginning of June. She hasn’t had much experience competing internationally, but she was a member of the team that took silver at junior world championships last year. Rivera, a native of Oradell, N.J., used to train under Maggie Haney, who was 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez’s coach, but Haney is currently suspended for five years by USA Gymnastics for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. Rivera and her family moved to Texas where she now trains at WOGA under Valeri Liukin, who coached his daughter Nastia to the Olympic all-around title in 2008. 

Her routines on uneven bars and balance beam are the key elements to how she fits in the team-building puzzle. Her 6.1 difficulty score on bars sets her up to score over a 14.000 when she hits, and she can also contribute a score in the upper 13-low 14.00 range on beam with a 6.0 difficulty score. 

On Sunday, she scored a 14.300 on bars and a 14.275 on beam, which placed her in a tie for first on that event. 

Her two lower-scoring events, vault and floor exercise, are not an issue because Biles, Chiles and Carey excel on those apparatuses. In Paris, she will likely be counted on to do beam in the team final and serve as a backup option for the bars lineup if Lee, who has been dealing with a kidney-related health condition, cannot perform on competition day. 

When the stakes were high and even some of the veterans felt the nerves, Rivera proved she could handle the pressure. Now she’s headed to Paris.

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(Photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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