Laurie Hernandez is focused on the 2020 Olympics -- but finds time for causes close to her heart

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for AHA

Laurie Hernandez looked like a seasoned pro walking the runway at the American Heart Association's Red Dress Collection presentation.

Ever since her star-making performance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Laurie Hernandez has been seemingly everywhere. She nabbed the Mirror Ball trophy on "Dancing with the Stars" in late 2016; published her memoir, "I Got This," in 2017; and co-hosted "American Ninja Warrior Junior" in 2018. With a résumé like that, it's almost hard to believe the gold and silver medalist is just 18 years old and still potentially in the prime of her athletic career.

Though she's spent much of the past two years out of the gym, she resumed training in the fall with hopes of returning to competition in the near future. Having left MG Elite, her longtime gym in her home state of New Jersey, she's now at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa, California, where Olympic gold medalist and current UCLA gymnast Kyla Ross used to train, with her focus squared firmly on making the 2020 Summer Olympics team.

While gymnastics is back to taking up most of her time these days, Hernandez still makes the occasional appearance at events, especially if it's something she is passionate about. When the American Heart Association asked if she could walk in its annual Red Dress Collection fashion show in New York City last Thursday at the Hammerstein Ballroom, alongside celebrities like Nicole and Brie Bella, she knew she had to find a way to make it work within her schedule.

We caught up with Hernandez while she was getting her hair and makeup done ahead of walking the runway.

espnW: Why was it important for you to be at this event?

Laurie Hernandez: I have personal ties to heart disease. My mom has it and my grandparents have had it. My grandparents -- one passed away before I was born, actually, and I was a little bit too young to understand what was going on with the other one. But my mom (Wanda Hernandez) has left branch bundle block. It definitely hits close to home, and it's an honor to be here.

espnW: How does your mom's condition impact her and your family on a daily basis?

Hernandez: Branch bundle block means the blood doesn't properly get pumped through her heart. We're just doing our best [as a family] to kind of change her eating habits and get her a little bit more active, so that way we can get her heart pumping properly again. We just found out about her condition a couple of months ago, and it's definitely been something that my whole family is tuned in on. We've all tried to eat a little bit healthier because of it.

espnW: What was it like hearing that news from your mom?

Hernandez: It was definitely scary. Your parents are people you think of as almost immortal, and are, in my eyes, supposed to live forever. She played it off like it was no big deal, as probably all moms do. Part of me was like, "Is this something I should worry about, or is this something that's OK?" But she kept saying, "No no, everything's OK, we're OK for now." So yeah. Just taking it day by day.

espnW: When you got invited to walk in the Red Dress show, it must have felt like a no-brainer.

Hernandez: Absolutely. I actually tried to come for the past two years, but I think snowstorms have prevented me from making it both years. My dad (Anthony Hernandez) is here with me tonight, and his dad had heart disease, so it's special to have him here. My mom couldn't make it, but I know she'll be watching the live stream.

espnW: Is this your first time walking a runway?

Hernandez: Yes! And I'm a little bit nervous about it, but mostly excited. I know that it's just supposed to be a lot of fun out there. I can't wait to go out and have a good time and see everybody. I mean, I'm used to people watching me with gymnastics, but this is different.

espnW: Speaking of gymnastics, how is your comeback going? What has training out at Gym-Max been like?

Hernandez: It's definitely a big challenge. I took about two years off so coming back was a big deal. I had been thinking about coming back for awhile but didn't act on it until last year. But I'm so excited to be back. The goal is definitely to make the Olympic team in 2020. I'm just taking it week by week, day by day, and just making sure that we're safe and healthy, but also consistent out there.

espnW: Are there any events you've been eyeing or marking on your calendar for a potential return to competition?

Hernandez: So far nothing is marked, yet.

espnW: Even in pencil?

Hernandez: (Laughs) No, not even in pencil, just yet. In words though, maybe. We've talked about a few things over the summer, but you know, they're kind of flexible. It's depending on when I'm ready. My coach has been doing a great job of being like, "You know what, I'm not gonna put you out there unless you're ready to be out there." It's a big team effort, and it's really comforting to have that. I'm excited.

espnW: Sounds like you're happy about your new gym.

Hernandez: I am very happy, yes. I work with Jenny [Zhang] and Howie [Liang] and both of them are sweethearts. They're worked with Kyla and McKayla [Maroney] and a few other athletes before, so that's pretty cool.

espnW: You've talked about being undecided between focusing on two events or returning to all-around competition before, have you made a decision on that?

Hernandez: Originally I was looking into doing two events, and Jenny was like, "No, let's try for four, why not?" We're definitely working on all four and we'll see how that comes along.

espnW: Which apparatus do you feel like you're strongest on right now?

Hernandez: Right now I feel like beam, [an event I received a silver medal for in Rio], is my strongest event. It was the first one that really came back to me. And I wouldn't exactly say it came back easily, but it was the one where my muscle memory really kicked in the quickest. Floor is also kicking in pretty well. Bars have always been a struggle since I was a little girl, so I'm not exactly surprised there.

espnW: It feels like you've been everywhere since Rio. Now that you're back in the gym, how do you balance it all?

Hernandez: It's definitely a juggling act. I always make sure that I have time for myself to do things that I want to do, whether that's maybe taking a day off and doing a little self-care. Or, if I need to be around people, I'll hang around my family and friends. But just making sure that I can stay in tune with myself 24-7 and see what I need at the moment, that's been really helpful.

espnW: Since Gym-Max is in California, I assume you've moved out there full-time. What's that been like?

Hernandez: Yes! Emily Liszewski is an old teammate of mine who I used to train with in New Jersey. She ended up moving out to California. I'm living with Emily and her family now. It's been really fun.

espnW: It seems like you've always got something going on, what's next for you, aside from, you know, that whole training for the Olympics thing?

Hernandez: I'm really just focused on training right now, Well, and "American Ninja Warrior Junior." There's supposed to be another season of that. But 2020 is my main focus right now.

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