From Oradell to Olympics: Inside Hezly Rivera’s rapid rise to U.S. gymnastics team

by Admin
From Oradell to Olympics: Inside Hezly Rivera's rapid rise to U.S. gymnastics team

Hezly Rivera was on stage with NBC’s ‘Today’ show less than one day after a moment changed her life and doubled her social media following.

Like so many others, Rivera was having a hard time wrapping her head around it all. The 16-year-old from Oradell punched her ticket to the Olympic games after an underdog run through the United States gymnastics trials on Sunday in Minneapolis.

She is believed to be the first Olympian from the small Bergen County borough and easily the youngest of five qualifiers on her American team.

Hezly Rivera, 16, competing at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials

Even the most decorated gymnast of all-time has to marvel at her rapid rise through the sport.

“Can you even drive yet?” said teammate and four-time gold medalist Simone Biles.

“I technically can, but I haven’t been,” Rivera said. “I’ve been so busy.”

Life will only get busier now for Rivera, whose road to Paris started in Paramus a little over a decade ago. She began training at ENA Gymnastics at age 5 after attending a friend’s birthday party at another facility and impressing the staff members there.

Before long, she was logging about 30 hours a week under the watchful eye of ENA head coach and co-owner Craig Zappa. By the time she moved to Texas a few years ago to train at an elite club under Valeri and Anna Liukin, it was clear that Rivera was bound for big things.

“A lot of girls get into gymnastics because they want to be an Olympian,” Zappa said. “That’s a big draw for them. But probably around 8, you started to see that this kid had something special that she could actually someday get there if all cards lined up. She not only had the talent, but the mental fortitude and drive to be able to attain it.”

Oradell ready to honor Hezly Rivera

Jun 28, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Hezly Rivera competes on the vault during the U.S. Olympic Team Gymnastics Trials at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

In Paris, the women’s gymnastics program will start with the qualification rounds on Sunday, July 28. Oradell mayor James G. Koth III said discussions have already started at town hall about ways to honor Rivera, who grew up on Beverly Road.

“We’ve thrown some ideas around about hosting a watch party, having a message or sign in town, to be able to cheer her on while she’s off to the Olympics,” Koth said.

“My wife did reach out to her dad via Facebook to see if they come back to the area at times to visit family and friends. In the town, we’d really like to do something to recognize this honor that she’s achieved. What an awesome opportunity for a young athlete to be able to go onto the world stage and compete for a medal.”

How Hezly Rivera made it to the 2024 Olympics

Jun 30, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Hezly Rivera competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Olympic Team Gymnastics Trials at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Rivera wasn’t considered a frontrunner to make the United States team, not at least until 2028.

The Washington Post found that the average medalist age at the last summer games in Tokyo was 20.6 in gymnastics – more than four full years ahead of the rising high school junior. On top of that was the competitive nature of the United States team, which has four returning Olympians – Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey.

That left one ticket for all the other Olympic hopefuls such as Kayla DiCello and Skye Blakely, the two athletes who outscored Rivera at the 2024 Winter Cup in February. But when DiCello and Blakely both went down with Achilles injuries, Rivera seized her opportunity.

“This kid was really level-headed,” Zappa recalls. “She was fearless. She was strong. She was quick. And she just had a knack for it. She was really coachable and eager to learn and be the best she could be.”

North Jersey’s Gymnast of Year applauds former teammate Hezly Rivera

June 28, 2024; Englewood, NJ; Avery Lauterback of Emerson accepts the Gymnast of the Year Award during the North Jersey High School Sports Awards at Bergen PAC. Anne-Marie Caruso/

A graphic on the NBC Sports telecast showed the sacrifice and unusual schedule made by Rivera: training from 8 to 11 a.m., homeschool from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., then back to training for another three hours.

During their time together, Zappa said it was common for Rivera to travel to a national camp every month or two for five days on end. Some required long-distance trips to Utah or Ohio.

“It’s a lot,” says Avery Lauterback, a former ENA teammate and the reigning North Jersey High School Sports Awards’ Gymnast of the Year. “You’re not like another kid who goes home from school and get to play a rec sport or hang out with friends. You go right from school to practice and from practice to home and then you have school work to do. Your life isn’t as loose of a schedule as if you didn’t do gymnastics.

“But once you get in so far, you don’t realize you are.”

Hezly Rivera (far left) and Emerson’s Avery Lauterback (back right) came up as teammates in the ENA Gymnastics program in Paramus.

Lauterback, of Emerson, is on the road as well this week. She’s competing at a college showcase in New Hampshire, but still made sure to flip on her hotel room TV to follow her former teammate at the Olympic trials.

“She’s very humble, even through all her success and all her amazingness,” Lauterback said. “Gymnastics only carries you so far in life but outside of it, she’s a great person. I feel like alongside with her amazing dedication to the sport, that’s what helped her get so far.”

TV viewership went up 24% at the Olympic trials for women’s gymnastics with about 7.6 million tuned in on Sunday night. Diehard fans back in Bergen County are optimistic that Rivera’s presence on the bigger stage can drive popularity back home.

“I think it will definitely motivate a lot of people from small towns, like Oradell where she was from, to believe they can accomplish things just like she did,” Lauterback said.

“Absolutely,” Zappa said. “Gymnastics is huge for the summer games. It’s the most-watched sport. Having a local gymnast is just going to take it to the next level.”

This article originally appeared on Hezly Rivera: Inside the NJ native’s rise to 2024 Olympics with USA gymnastics

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