Laurie Hernandez became a part of the elite sorority of world class gymnasts in 2016, just in time for the Rio Olympic Games. Her goal had always been to make an Olympic Team, and the Rio competition made her dream come true. The youngest member of the team that dubbed itself the Final Five and one of the youngest members of the entire 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, Hernandez is a 16-year-old of Puerto Rican descent and the first U.S. born Latina to join the U.S. women’s gymnastics team since 1984 when Tracee Talavera competed in the Los Angeles games that year. In some ways, Laurie didn’t dwell on such a distinction. “I think people are people: if you want something, go get it,” she told NBC. “I don’t think it matters what race you are. If you want to train hard enough to go to the Olympics, you’re going to go out and do it.”
Born on June 9, 2000 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Lauren Hernandez (who was nicknamed Laurie at the gym to distinguish herself from other gymnasts sharing that space) was raised as the youngest child in a close family consisting of her father, Anthony; her mother, Wanda; her brother, Marcus; her sister, Jelysa; and her grandmother, Bruni. When not in the gym, Laurie enjoys spending time with her family, and she is also involved in her church.
Her road to Rio began in 2005 when she was five years old and stepped into a gym class for the first time. As young as she was at the time, she was more fascinated with watching gymnastics on television than she was in attending dance and ballet classes. Those classes were a bore, and she had to be coaxed into attending them (bribed actually with cookies to go). Gymnastics classes, however, were another thing all together. Her mother enrolled her in the sport because she had so much energy and always wanted to experience the feeling of flying. “My earliest memory was watching gymnastics on live TV and wanting to do what the ‘big girls’ did,” Hernandez told NBC. “I started a gymnastics class at five years old, but it became serious at seven.” She enrolled in Monmouth Gymnastics where she met her coach, Maggie Haney, and they have been together ever since.
Haney saw very early on that Laurie had a natural feel for music and decided that the grace and techniques of dance would make Laurie a one of a kind gymnastics champion. Her routines resemble carefully choreographed dances performed with the athletic prowess to introduce complex tumbling and gymnastic moves. Laurie’s athleticism is paired with a personality that feeds off an enthusiastic crowd. “I love competing floor,” Hernandez told NBC, “because the energy of the crowd is really nice, and I can show my personality when I’m out there.”
The energy Laurie exudes has caught the attention of the gymnastics community. International Gymnast Magazine called Hernandez the “Human emoji” for her expressive face while performing, and gymnastics podcast Gymcastic nicknamed her “baby Shakira” because of the way she combines dance with her athletic artistry.
Beginning with the third grade Laurie was homeschooled, and she credits her hard work, leadership skills and her never give up attitude to her mom who was in the Army Reserves for six years and made sure she respected rules and stayed motivated while Laurie was growing up.
Eleven years after enrolling in gymnastics classes, Laurie joined her team mates on the gold medal podium as the U.S. National Anthem played to accept the gold for Women’s Team All-Around. She capped her Rio experience with a silver medal for the balance beam competition.
Laurie’s natural ability let her breeze through the ranks of junior gymnastics following a rigorous daily regimen, which was marked by arriving at the training facility by 8:30 a.m and practicing from five to six hours a day six days a week. In 2012, she finished 21st in the all-around at the national championships, and in 2013, at 13 years old she was second and won event medals on the uneven bars, the balance beam and the floor exercise. Her career hit a roadblock in 2014 when she fractured her wrist and dislocated her kneecap, which sent her under the knife to have a new ligament attached to her knee. By 2015 she was back in competition and was undefeated in that year’s all-around in two domestic and two international competitions. At the national championships, she won the all-around gold and medals on all four events: gold on uneven bars, silver on floor exercise and bronzes on vault and balance beam.
Most of those watching Laurie nab a gold and silver medal in Rio could never imagine how many challenges this young role model had faced on her arduous road to recovery. She makes no secret of the fact that her determination and strength has been fueled by a loving and caring family as well as a training team that makes sure she has everything she needs to be the very best she can be. She explained to NBC, “My parents as well as my family have supported me since the beginning. They are always there for me when I need them! My coach, Maggie Haney, has played a big role in my gymnastics as well. She has been with me since square one and taught me everything I need to know about gymnastics. She truly supports me, and I know she wants the best for me. Jan, Maggie’s mother, and Carli, Maggie’s sister, have also supported me.”
The response of the Hispanic community has touched Laurie deeply, and it fills her with a sense that she has a responsibility to present a positive Latina image to the world. “I’m just proud of my heritage,” Hernandez told NBC when asked about being a Latina gymnast. “I think it’s amazing that I can just go out there and be myself, and the fact that I’m carrying Puerto Rico on my back a little bit, I think that’s an honor.”
In the final analysis, Laurie and her teammates look back with pride when they remember what it was like to have been entrusted with the honor of being part of America’s Olympic team. She told People Magazine, “I wasn’t just representing Hispanics; I was representing Team USA. I hope people understand that.” The USA emblem on her gym clothes makes that point, but no one can deny that she has become an inspiration for young Hispanic female athletes – young girls that she can inspire to greatness not only in athletics, but also in life, just as she was once inspired herself.•