2016 Olympic bronze medalist Nico Hernandez recently returned to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train and spar with members of Team USA's 2019 Elite Men's team.
"To be honest," he said, "it was crazy. I hadn't been back since the Olympics. It was like starting all over again. I even went to the wrong place to train, because they moved the gym from where it was. I like the new one, it has three or four rings. I was just one of the guys, training and sparring, but they looked up to me, too. It was like I was back there. I had a good time and it was cool to see the coaches: Billy (Walsh), Kay (Koroma) and Coach Guz.
"They asked me to talk to the boxers. I just told them not to be nervous and everything else would be the same. No doubt that they're going to be in top shape and that the real focus was needing to have the right mind set."
Four years ago, Hernandez was in a similar situation as the elite boxers he trained with are currently in, preparing to compete in the World Championships and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Boxing.
Ironically, Nico lost in the opening round of the Worlds in Qatar, but he did capture gold at the double-elimination Olympic Trials, defeating Leroy Davila in two of three matches. Up next for Nico was competing in Argentina at the 2016 AIBA Continental Olympic Qualifier to qualify to box in the 2016 Olympics, which he did by winning a silver medal.
Despite his parents being against him boxing, Nico started when he was nine years old, sparring in his front yard without gloves. His uncle Michael Hernandez had a brief pro career and Nico's father, Lewis Hernandez, took him to watch his uncle work out at the gym. The rest, as they say, was history, and Lewis not only became his son's head coach, he now owns and operates one of the top gyms (Northside 316 Boxing Club) in Kansas.
Hernandez was a decorated amateur boxer, albeit he wasn't close to a household name until he upset Russian light flyweight Vasily Egorav, 3-0, in the round of 16 at the Olympics. Egorav was a highly rated contender as the 2015 European champion and silver medalist at the 2015 World Championships.
During his amateur career, Hernandez was an eight-time Ringside World Champion and the only six-time Silver Gloves National Champion, as well as a gold medalist at the 2011 and 2012 USA Junior Olympics and 2014 National Golden Gloves championships.
In Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games, Hernandez defeated Manual Cappai (Italy) in the opening round, then the aforementioned Egorav, and Nico insured a bronze medal by beating Ecuador's Carlos Quipo, 3-0, in the quarterfinals. Nico lost in the semifinals to the eventual light flyweight division gold medalist, Hasanboy Dusmatov (Ukraine), 3-0, also the 2015 Asian champion.
Hernandez returned to the United States as a celebrity, particularly in Wichita, which hosted a parade in his honor, and Wichita State University gave him an open-ended, four-year scholarship.
His life was altered by his highly successful USA Boxing experiences. "I become a better boxer," he explained, "but I also changed a lot as a person, because of all the traveling to different countries where I learned about different cultures. I saw the way people from other countries live and understood how very blessed we are in America.
"My first trip was at 16 to Russia for the Junior World Championships. We lived there two guys to a room with cots. It was really hot and there was no air conditioning there. No television or even a toilet - we had to go in a hole - and saw people there struggling a lot. That motivated me. I remember being unable to pay bills and heating water to take a bath, but I'm still motivated, especially now that I have a son."
"We're proud that Nico is able to pass on the lessons he learned as a world-class amateur boxer. As part of our mission to 'Connect Generations of Champions,' the USA Boxing Alumni Association is thankful for Nico's ability to connect with the current group of boxers representing USA on a global scale," said Chris Cugliari, USA Boxing Alumni Association Director. "His recent success serves as a highly visible and motivating example for them to follow."
The highlight of his career, of course, was winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics. "I put in a lot of work and boxed in a lot of tournaments to get there," Hernandez noted.