When 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez made Team USA’s Olympics squad, the news electrified the internet. Though she’s not the first Latina to represent the US gymnastics at the world’s largest sports stage, having a Latina on the 2016 team is important in a sport that remains very white. In the spring of 2007, a survey of the Member Clubs of USA Gymnastics found that Latino participation stood at just 3.63 percent. Meanwhile, white participation came in at the biggest share at 74.6 percent. Things may have shifted some since then, but even four years ago, the Huffington Post reported that cost still kept many women of color from participating in the sport.
This isn’t a responsibility that Laurie takes lightly, either. “Si Dios lo quiere, to represent the US as the only Latina gymnast would be such an honor,” she told The Guardian. “I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles.”
Female gymnasts first began to compete in the Olympics in 1926, but the US’ women’s gymnastics team started participating in 1936. In 80 years, only four Latinas have represented Team USA. Meet them below and learn more about their journey to the Olympics:
In the late 1970s, Tracee Talavera started making waves in the world of gymnastics. According to the Chicago Tribune, at 13 – six years after she started her gymnastics career – Tracee ranked as the United States’ top gymnast. But in 1980, she missed the age cutoff for the World Championships by just a few weeks. Her best chance at Olympics domination came a few months later – when the Mexican-American gymnast won the all-around title and everything but vault at the American Cup. Unfortunately for her, that’s when President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Talavera should have competed alongside Luci Collins Cummins, Marcia Frederick Blanchette, Kathy Johnson Clarke, Beth Kline, Julianne McNamara, and Amy Koopman. However, as the youngest member of the team, she knew she could come back four years later. “I loved gymnastics,” she said, according to the USA Gymnastics site. “There were new skills to learn. The older girls, some were thinking of quitting then. I felt much empathy for them. In four years, some of them weren’t going to be around.”
Four years took its toll on Talavera, too. At the trials, she finished in sixth place, which put her on the bubble. But she still made the 1984 Olympic team. She helped her team secure a silver medal in Los Angeles, and finished in fourth place in the vault, just missing the bronze.
When the Tribune caught up with her in 1990 – at age 24 – Talavera discussed her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. First, she lost vision in one eye. Then, the then-gymnastics teacher lost feeling in her feet. And later came the diagnosis. Though she has good moments and bad, she made it clear that MS doesn’t define her or stop her from achieving her goals. “This is just a small part of my life,” she said. “I’m a person still. This is just a small part of who I am.”
At the gymnastics world championships in 1996, Annia Hatch – Annia Portuondo at the time – gave Cuba its first international gymnastics medal. When she tried to compete in the Olympics that year, the government told her it lost her papers, so the seven-time Cuban national retired. Her story could have ended there if Alan Hatch never came into the picture. The 18-year-old met Alan, a U.S.-born gymnastics coach, at the world championships, and she fell for him. Despite not having a phone (she borrowed her neighbors’), the two kept in touch. “It was very hard because it took a lot of effort to keep the relationship going,” she told the New York Times. “Yes, it was inconvenient, but we made it work. It was worth it.”
Just after she retired, she married Alan and moved to Connecticut. She helped her husband coach, and in 2001 – the year she became a naturalized citizen – she learned that a former teammate made a comeback at 22 after having a kid. The very next day Annia began training. The top-notch pole vaulter quickly rose through the ranks, but Cuba said that she failed to fulfill a contract and couldn’t compete for the US for another year.
Annia had her fair share of obstacles on the road to Olympic glory. In 2003, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee – for many, it’s a career ending injury. Annia got back out there two months after the injury, despite doctors saying it’d take her four to six months. And that’s how at 26, she found herself on the team, competing alongside women 10 years her junior. She played an important role on the 2004 team, helping the team win silver. She also won a silver medal for her vault performance.
In an interview with Inside Gymnastics in 2015, Annia said she kept busy nowadays by coaching at G-Force Gymnastics Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia.
Kyla Ross, the quietest member of Team USA’s 2012 Fierce Five, got the least amount of attention, but her consistent performances on the balance beam and uneven bars contributed to the gold medal win. Unfortunately, Ross – who has one Puerto Rican grandparent – didn’t end her international elite career the same way she began it. In 2009, a 12-year-old Ross kicked off this stage of her gymnastics in Aracaju, Brazil, but she won’t make it to this year’s Olympics. Before the trial, Ross retired from her elite career to focus on school.
But even in her first year, Kyla shone bright. According to journalist Lauren Hopkins –who extensively covered Ross throughout her career – at the 2009 U.S. Classic in Des Moines, the gymnast won, even though it was her first major domestic meet. A month later, she won nationals, and though people argued that Jordyn Weiber’s injury paved the way for her to place first, it’s hard to deny that her performance was anything short of impressive. A few months later, she won the Pan Ams, too.
Three years later, Ross began competing as a senior. Unlike other more experienced gymnasts, she didn’t have the Amanar vault to bolster her gymnastics game, but she was a first-rate talent on bars and beam. “No matter that there were several other specialists going after that same team spot,” Hopkins wrote on The Gymternet. “No matter that these specialists just happened to be Olympians and world medalists and NCAA superstars. At the end of the day, Ross was the best fit, and the only one who could get the job done perfectly every single time.” At the Olympics, she did just that.
Unlike her to her Fierce Five teammates, Ross didn’t take a break after the Olympics, and continued to dominate. But ultimately, growing several inches (she’s now 5-foot-6-inches) and injuries made it difficult for Ross to compete at the same level.
But Ross isn’t saying goodbye to gymnastics. She’ll be a member of UCLA’s gymnastics team. Fellow Fierce Five member Jordyn Wieber did turn pro, but even though she’s ineligible to compete at the school, she’ll be moving into a coaching role at UCLA, which means she’ll be around to support Ross for at least part of her college career.
Unfortunately, Ross won’t be joining fellow Boricua Sophina DeJesus, who just finished up at UCLA this year.
At age 4, Laurie Hernandez started ballet, but she quickly became bored and asked her mom to enroll her in gymnastics the next year. She quickly took to gymnastics, and on top of being incredibly skilled at the sport, her personality has also helped set her apart.
For a few years, Laurie dominated on the junior level, and she made her debut this year at the 2016 City of Jesolo Trophy, where she won an all-around bronze medal. Before this year’s Olympic trials, she was already keeping up with veterans Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, and Aly Raisman. A knee injury earlier this year could have kept her from going for the Olympic trials. Even in early June, she was only participating in a few events at competitions. But by the time June 23 rolled around, she participated in all events at the Women’s P&G Gymnastics Championships, where she placed third all-around, beating Olympic champ Douglas.
While she’s altogether poised and resolute – traits that will prove beneficial to the US team – something happens when she takes to the mat. Dancing to a remix version of WTF!’s “Da Bop,” the New Jersey native equally shows off her dancing abilities, technical skills, and bubbly personality. She first performed this new floor routine last month, and Márta Károlyi, the woman who makes the decision on who gets to go to to the Olympics, was very here for it.
The first day of the Olympic trials, she ended up in second place, despite some missteps. She fell on the uneven bars during practice, and when it came time to compete, she nailed that part, but stumbled on a piroutte that went into a handstand.
On the second day, she started off with her strongest event, but ended up stepping out of bounds, giving her a lower than usual score. Though she didn’t have any major mess ups throughout the night, her score didn’t reflect that. She closed off the night’s performances with her impressive beam work, and all of her teammates supported her on the sidelines. Regardless, she still finished ahead of two Olympics champions and everyone but the world’s best gymnast.