The youngest member of the U.S. women's gymnastic squad talks overcoming injury and becoming a role model.
Posted in , Aug 3, 2016
Sixteen-year-old gymnast Laurie Hernandez dreams of bringing home an Olympic gold medal for America– and there’s a good chance she just might.
Hernandez, nicknamed “Baby Shakira” and the “Human Emoji” by her fans – watch her breathtaking floor routines where she combines energetic dance moves with powerhouse tumbles and you’ll see how she earned those titles –represents the U.S. on the women’s gymnastics Olympic team in Rio, Brazil. Hernandez is just the third U.S.-born Latina athlete to make the U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympic team. She follows in the footsteps of Mexican-American gymnast Tracee Talavera who competed in 1984 and Kyla Ross who was part of the Fierce Five in 2012.
“I think it’s amazing that I can just go out there and be myself,” Hernandez told reporters on a recent conference call. The Latina gymnast is proud to represent America and her Puerto Rican ethnicity at the Games. “The fact that I’m carrying Puerto Rico on my back a little bit; I think it’s an honor.”
Hailing from New Brunswick, NJ, Hernandez began dancing at 4 years old before switching to gymnastics after ballet failed to hold the energetic child’s attention. After watching a group of girls doing flips and tumbles on TV, she wanted to be just like them. She was soon introduced to her coach, Maggie Haney.
The next decade would be full of challenges and triumphs, joys and disappointments. Haney began to realize how talented Hernandez was when she was nine-years-old. In 2012, Hernandez finished 21st in the all-around at the Junior Gymnastics National Championships. Just one year later she would come in second at the event, winning medals on the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise competitions.
When Hernandez was 14 years-old she had her first taste of something that plagues many elite gymnasts: injury. In 2014, she fractured her wrist. She later dislocated her right kneecap, tore her patella ligament and bruised her MCL all on one bad vault landing that same year. While Hernandez was recovering, her teammate Jazmyn Foberg, also coached by Haney, went on to win the National Championships. It lit a fire in her.
“When she came back from an injury, she was very motivated that year to catch back up and get back on track,” Haney said. “Once her knee started feeling good, I kind of looked at her like ‘Listen it is time now’ and she snapped. She went into a crazy person mode.”
The result? In 2015, Hernandez earned gold at the National Championships, took home medals in all four events and finished second behind powerhouse Simone Biles during this year’s P&G Olympic trials. As the crowd chanted her name and her family watched from the stands, Hernandez was able to do what no other gymnast did that night: stick every routine. That consistency is something she’s worked hard to achieve.
“A couple years ago when I got into big competitions I was really fragile because I had no experience,” Hernandez explained. “Now that I’m doing all these big competitions I think I just control my nerves and control my mindset; that’s where maturity comes in.”
It’s funny to hear a 16 year-old speak about maturity, but Hernandez has it, on the mat and off. The little girl who grew up worshipping gymnasts like Shawn Johnson and Kyla Ross but not seeing more Hispanic gymnasts representing America on TV, knows what it means to be a role model to other young kids coming up in the sport.
“If you want something go get it,” Hernandez said. “I don’t think it matters what race you are – if you want to try hard enough to go to the Olympics then you’re going to go out there and you’re going to do it. Set a goal, take it one step at a time and you’ll get there when you get there – if you train hard enough you’ll get there even faster.”
This summer, she’s ready to make her own dreams come true and she’s proud to be sporting the U.S.A. on her back.
“As a little kid that’s all you dream about,” Hernandez said. “The fact that we’re actually going to the Olympics with such a strong team, it’s really a dream come true. I’ve wanted this for a really long time –I’m grateful to actually have it happen."