Laurie Hernández represents Latinos in U.S. women's gymnastics team
Laurie Hernández’s Instagram account contains things many 16-year-olds have on theirs: selfies with friends, heart emojis, birthday shout-outs, a photo with mom, and a video of them at a Tori Kelly concert. However, there is something unique about Hernández’s profile: in most of her photos, this young lady - with a toned body, dark hair, glowing olive eyes - appears to be dressed in a gymnastic leotard with the American colors, performing splits on the ground or stunts on parallel bars. Recently turning 16 years of age, Laurie Hernández isn’t only the youngest artistic gymnast to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Rio; she has also become the first Hispanic athlete to compete in this event since Hall of Famer Tracee Talavera, who participated in the 1984 Games.
“If God wants it, it would be an honor to represent the U.S. as the only Latina. I think I could serve as an example for other Hispanic gymnasts interested in this sport, but I also want them to understand the importance of maintaining concentration and determination, not giving up, and overcoming obstacles,” said Hernandez in an interview with The Guardian in July, before qualifying for the olympic team.
Laurie Hernández grew up and studied in Old Bridge, NJ, in the heart of a Puerto Rican family (her grandparents were from Puerto Rico) and at five years old she started her artistics gymnastics journey at a local gym. Her talents and abilities caught her trainer’s attention, Maggie Haney, who encouraged her to enter elite competitions. Laurie attended the prestigious gymnastics and cheer academy MG Elite, also located in New Jersey, and at 11 years old she started competing on junior national tournaments. Her career as a gymnast soared until a knee injury forced her to withdraw from training in 2014. A year later, Hernández returned to the world of competition full of energy and between late 2015 and early 2016 she won several medals in national and international tournaments. Her accomplishments allowed her to enter the national team and become one of the youngest promising athletes of Rio 2016, especially in the all around and floor exercise events.
“This is surreal, OMG”, tweeted Laurie on July 11, shortly after learning that she had been selected among the five gymnasts who will represent the US in Rio. In her Twitter profile picture, Laurie appears to be embracing Simone Biles, the star of the national gymnastics team and regarded one of the best gymnasts in the world. In various tweets and photographs, Biles refers to Hernández as her “littler sister” - a show of camaraderie among the five gymnasts of the team. Among the tweets and videos with friends, Laurie includes some religious phrases and prayers to God. Below her profile picture reads: "God is always first.
"Every morning my mother sends me Bible verses and constantly reminds me to not forget to pray. If you do not start your day with God, then why are you doing anything today?" says Laurie Hernandez in an article published on Athletes in Action this past July. In the same report, the gymnast 's mother, Wanda Hernandez, admits she has always tried to instill in her daughter the importance of believing in God as a source of motivation both personally and in sports. "Since she was a little girl I have taught her the importance of understanding that God is in control of everything," says Wanda Hernandez. Daughter of Puerto Rican migrants, Wanda was raised in a dangerous neighborhood in New Jersey, surrounded by gangs, drugs, and crime. Her mother, also very religious, died of cancer when Wanda was still quite young.
"My mother is like a little angel sent especially for me. On the days that I feel particularly stressed - whether at school, doing gymnastics, or anything really - she’s always there to give me support," Laurie explained to Athletes in Action. The athlete likes to recall that, during a trip to Italy for a competition, she went to buy a water bottle and found a note inside her purse from her mother, saying, "As you start your trip, remember to pray, read the Bible and trust God more than anything in this world. Find the necessary time to meditate, breathe and help others. Remember that you can do everything through Christ who gives you strength. Pray more and worry less. Love, Mom!"
Laurie’s mother is also in charge of taking Laurie and picking her up from the gym, where she trains for a large part of mornings everyday. Gymland facilities are an hour from the family home in Old Bridge, NJ. At the gym is where Laurie practices her ground choreography, under the supervision of Maggie Haney, who has coached her since she was five. The close relationship between Haney and Laurie is probably one of the major keys to Laurie’s success in the sport, despite being only 16 years old.
In her social media pages, Laurie’s frank smile and lighthearted posts made it worthy of calling her “The Human emoji” or “Baby Shakira”. However, Spanish music is not a preference of Laurie. In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan, the Latina gymnast admitted that she listens to electronic music, EDM, and rap when training.
Baby Shakira in Team USA
“You have done very well!”
“You’ve made Team USA very happy and I am very happy for you!”
“You were more than spectacular!”
"Great performance on the ground. I wish you well in the bar. Go for the gold! And I also love your contagious smile!"
Since they started the Olympic Games in Rio, last Friday, Hernández’s Instagram page has been filled with greetings and congratulatory messages. But who is this young gymnast with big eyes and infectious smile that has managed to be the first Latina to represent the U.S. in the Games after more than 30 years?
Being 16 years of old now, she was born in New Jersey on June 9. 2000. Her parents, Wanda and Anthony Hernández, are Puerto Rican. She is the youngest of three siblings. Her first interaction with gymnastics was at five years old.
She is the first athlete of Latin blood to be selected for the U.S. women’s olympic team since 1984.
"I see it as an honor to represent, somehow, Puerto Rico, the Hispanic community and all the girls," said Hernandez in an interview with the Huffington Post. "I do not think that being Hispanic, Black or White limits you from being what you want to be," she added.
Her coach is Maggie Haney, the trainer who discovered her talent, with five years. When Laurie was nine years old, she joined an elite gymnastics academy and began participating in camps from the U.S. national team.
In 2014, she suffered various injuries that put her sports career in jeopardy. She fractured her wrist and dislocated her right knee. She spent one year without competing.
Some people call her “The Human Emoji” for the diverse facial expressions she makes while performing her routines. Laurie is an expressive teenage, given a look at her photo on Instagram or Twitter, with her joy-filled eyes, long and curly eyelashes, and her frank and contagious smile. Her comments encourage optimism and affection. Laurie has also earned the nickname “Baby Shakira” for her dancing style when performing routines.
Currently, she is in third grade and intend to apply for a National Colllegiate Athlete Association (NCAA) program at the University of Florida. THE NCAA is an association aimed at ensuring the welfare and long-term success of athletes who want to combine their athletic career with studies.
Off the gym mats, Hernández says she enjoys getting a manicure and reading. Her favorite book is “The Maze Runner”.