When Cuban-born gymnast Annia Hatch represented Team USA at the 2004 Olympics, Laurie Hernández – whose grandparents are Puerto Rican – hadn’t even familiarized herself with the 39-by-39-foot floor that’s now set her apart in the sport. Back then, 4-year-old Laurie had been taking ballet for a year, though she didn’t stick with it too long, because by the next year, she became bored and asked her mom if she could switch to gymnastics. On Sunday, she earned a spot in the ultimate gymnastics competition, joining Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Having just turned 16 in June, Laurie is the youngest team member, and she only started competing as a senior this year. This year’s team skews a little older than the 2012 team – the gold-medal winning team known as the Fierce Five averaged 16.2 years old. This year’s team is an average of 19.2 years. In the leadup to the Olympic trials on July 8-10 in San Jose, the NBC commentators didn’t see her as a sure bet – that is until the last day.
Though it’s a lot of pressure to represent the US on one of the world’s largest stages, Laurie has kicked off a new stage in her career on a stellar note. She made her senior debut at the 2016 City of Jesolo Trophy, where she won an all-around bronze medal. She’s kept up with veterans Douglas, Biles, and Raisman. She bounced back from a knee injury this year and only competed in a few events in early June, but when 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.
Between the trials and the P&G championship, Laurie has proven she’s a solid team player, even though her specialties are floor and the uneven bars. 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 on June 24, and Márta Károlyi was very here for it. She oohed and aahed with the rest of us watching the dazzling young performer from our homes, of if you were lucky, in the audience.
She went into Sunday’s competition in second place. Taking place at the SAP Center in San Jose, the arena made her nervous. “When I first walked in… we had a practice that night and I saw how big the arena was, I was a little bit intimidated, ‘Oh, the biggest arena I’ve ever been to,’” she told the Los Angeles Times. During practice, she fell on the uneven bars. When it came time to the competition, she nailed that part, but stumbled on a pirouette that went into a handstand. She wanted to hold the pose for a “wow factor,” but very nearly fell off.
On the second day, she started off with her strongest event, but she 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.
Laurie is not the first Latina to represent Team USA; she’s actually following in the footsteps of Mexican-American Tracee Talavera (1984 Olympian who won silver along with her teammates) and Hatch (who won silver in the 2004 Olympics on both vault and team). She’s also not the first Boricua, as Kyla Ross (1/5 of the Fierce Five) has also represented the US.
Yet, Laurie doesn’t take this position lightly. Gymnastics is still a very white sport. 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, cost still kept many women of color from participating in the sport. Laurie’s mom, Wanda Hernández, knows that her daughter “can open doors to other young Latina girls that would like to try gymnastics.” Before the trial, Laurie spoke to The Guardian and talked about being a role model. “Si Dios lo quiere, to represent the US as the only Latina gymnast would be such an honor,” she said. “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.”
For Laurie, this means starting her day off at 8:30 a.m. and going hard until 4:30 p.m. Training for the trials means that she shuffles around between two gyms – one is where she practices her floor routine, the other is where she uses the uneven bars. Despite her and her teammates’ performance at the Rio games, this group of young women will inspire a new generation of gymnasts. This is one of the most diverse teams in the history of US women’s gymnastics. Other than Laurie, there’s two African-American members: Biles – the heavy favorite – and reigning Olympic champ Douglas.
Update July 11, 10 a.m.: This article has been updated to include Kyla Ross, who is of Puerto Rican descent. Originally, the post stated that Hernández was the second US-born gymnast, but she is actually the third.