16-year-old Laurie Hernandez's meteoric rise in gymnastics
ST. LOUIS -- Her mother refers to what may happen to her daughter, what seems almost sure to happen at this point, as "the lotto." As in a miracle and certainly not something they have planned on or, heaven forbid, counted upon.
In fact, Olympics is a word Laurie Hernandez's parents, Wanda and Anthony, say they have never used in reference to Laurie's future until recently. Not because they're not proud of her or don't believe in their 16-year-old's chances, but rather for the same reason Wanda says she knows very little about the technical side of gymnastics.
"I didn't want to learn her routines," Wanda says. "I didn't want to ever say, 'Did you do X wrong?' I want to enjoy her for being my daughter. I see the potential and what she has, but I'm a mom and I'm going to see it through a mom's eyes."
What Laurie Hernandez has was good enough for a third-place finish in the all-around at the U.S. nationals in St. Louis two weeks ago, which puts her in prime position to be named to the five-member Olympic team after the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose end on July 10.
"She didn't feel intimidated and she did what she was prepared for," said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator. "That's exactly what you look for, to see if she can handle the pressure and if she feels comfortable with that setting. [At nationals], she proved she can do it."
Hernandez dazzled the St. Louis crowd and an Olympic selection committee well aware of her ability since before she won the junior national all-around title last year.
But after finishing behind three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles, just a hair in back of two-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman and ahead of 2012 all-around Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, Hernandez's arrival on the senior scene seemed to be confirmed.
And for a few seconds anyway, she allowed observers to see the just-turned 16-year-old girl behind the polished and mature performer. Asked how it felt to finish amidst seasoned Olympic and world champions on the first night of competition, Hernandez said, "I didn't realize that. I never look at scores or anything ..." before breaking into a radiant smile.
"That's really cool. ... "
Her coach, Maggie Haney, insists her first-ever elite gymnast is "as 16 as they come," but she knows why that is questioned. "In everything else except for her gymnastics," she says.
While it is clearly premature to compare Hernandez to other notable 16-year-old American gymnasts such as Douglas, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton, all of whom won Olympic gold medals in the all-around, it is impossible to miss the New Jersey native's championship fiber.
In that area, Hernandez has the look and sound of a seasoned vet, and there was no reason to doubt her when she glanced around the arena before the U.S. championships began, just 13 days after turning 16, and said she was not in awe of her surroundings.
"This whole thing is pretty normal," Hernandez said. "I think the only thing that has really changed is that I'm a senior this year. But besides that, I feel pretty comfortable."
While Hernandez said she has learned from and continues to be influenced by Biles, Raisman and Douglas, she stops short of the sort of hero worship that would put her on a different plane.
"They're all really sweet and really accepting and I feel like I've known them my whole life," Hernandez said. "We're always cheering for each other and I feel almost like the age doesn't make a difference. It's almost like mentally, we're all in the same place."
Her teammates are inclined to agree.
"I forget how young Laurie is just because she's so mature," Raisman said. "She really does not act like she just turned 16 years old at all. I think gymnastics definitely forces you to grow up, but she's way mature beyond her years, so I think that's why she's been able to be so successful. She's such a great competitor and she's so consistent. She proved that as a junior and now also as a senior."
Both Biles and Douglas said Hernandez is "spunkier" than they were at 16.
"She definitely has more confidence than I had when I was her age, and I think she's a really good asset to the team just because she's so bubbly," Biles said.
But Douglas said there is also an innocence in Hernandez that she recognizes.
"When you're so young, you kind of just forget about how big it is," she said. "You don't realize the magnitude. It's awesome because you're like a newborn baby and just do your stuff and don't feel the pressure. Just do your thing and it will all be good."
With a style that is compact and powerful, yet buoyant and youthful, Hernandez is the sort of athlete who commands attention, particularly with her playful but medal-worthy floor routine.
"Laurie is a very good-looking gymnast," Karolyi said. "She is artistic and has good technical work. She also demonstrated pretty good consistency this past year and presented herself very well in major competitions in Italy and Pacific Rim, so yes, she can be a really good complement [to the Olympic team]."
Haney first spotted the future star at five after her sister coached her in a recreational class, but Haney won't go so far as to say that she saw Olympic potential at the time.
"I just thought she was really stinking cute," she said.
When Hernandez was nine, Haney called a friend who was with USA Gymnastics and asked how she could get her pupil into some national developmental camps. The friend looked up Hernandez's TOPs score (short for Talent Opportunity Program, which tests physical abilities and basic skills on events for gymnasts 7 to 10 years old) and told Haney, "Oh, she's the No. 1 TOPs kid in the country. She can come."
"That's when the light bulb kind of went off for me like, all right, I got something good on my hands here; we've got to really give this a run," Haney said. "And after that, I just started teaching her so many skills. As fast as I could, I just focused a little more attention on her and taught her skill after skill after skill.
"She loved it. And that was a big growth from I would say 10 to 12. That was a big change. She went from a nobody to kind of hopping on the scene."
Coach and athlete have forged an almost telepathic relationship since then.
"I've had her since she was five years old," Haney said. "I know her better than she does and she says that, 'Wow, you already know what I'm going to do next.' So I just know I have to keep it really calm and really light with her. If you watch us close, we're kind of cracking jokes the whole time and laughing. We have a really close relationship, and I think that's the thing that makes this whole situation work for her."
What also makes it work, Haney and Hernandez agree, is the relationship Laurie's parents have to Haney and their daughter's gymnastics.
"Her parents just handed her over to me," Haney said, joking. But in reality, though mom and coach speak weekly to catch up, it's "not on gymnastics but how she's feeling and all that stuff," Haney said.
And they did not speak of the Olympics until after Laurie won the U.S. junior all-around title "because with social media, it kind of became something we couldn't avoid talking about," Haney said.
As Wanda Hernandez explained, "Laurie has a full ride to the University of Florida [to compete in NCAA gymnastics] and that was our goal. It wasn't the Olympics and she understands that. The chance of that, to be honest, is in God's hands."
Wanda, an elementary school social worker who also works with delinquent teens, told the story of her daughter once finishing 21st in a competition when she was 12.
"I'll never forget it, she was looking at it like she failed," Wanda said. "And I said, 'You did fantastic. Do you know how many people would love to be No. 21? That's cause for celebration. I think that's when she was able to grasp this wonderful gift she has and how phenomenal it is to have this opportunity. We tried to teach her the art of gratefulness."
Laurie Hernandez is definitely grateful for her parents.
"My parents have tried not to intrude," she said. "They kind of stayed apart from my gymnastics but are very supportive, and that's very helpful as a gymnast to not have your parents say, 'Did you do this today?' and just be very on top of you. I think it helps a lot that they're laid back, and you just get to come home to open arms."
Wanda, whose husband Anthony is a court clerk for the New York City Supreme Court in the civil branch, admitted there have been times of doubt.
"As a parent, you question 'Am I doing everything I need to protect her?' We just wanted to make sure in the midst of all of this that we're doing what's right for her and keeping her safe," she said.
Wanda attributes part of Laurie's maturity to having a 20-year-old brother and 27-year-old sister, who is also a social worker. "I think that prepared her to be able to communicate," Wanda said. "She can be very mature and disciplined when the occasion demands it, but what I love about her is her great sense of humor and ability to make light of things."
And when Laurie won the junior national title two weeks after turning 15, that sense of confidence became easier for her to express, and it's proven valuable in the lead-up to the Olympics.
"After that, I realized there's nothing to be afraid of and I can just go out there and perform without feeling so anxious and nervous," she said. "Just be excited. My coach and I were just talking and we were saying I'm living the dream and the path that I've wanted to take for so long that I should just enjoy the ride. There's no reason to be so anxious about anything."