It’s easy to forget that Laurie Hernandez is just 16 years old, a full three years younger than any other member of the Final Five.
One of the youngest U.S. Olympians this year in Rio, Hernandez has also been one of the most high-profile, winning the gold with the team in the all-around competition, and scoring an individual silver medal for the balance beam.
Exuberant and talkative, Hernandez’s big smile and cheerful demeanor have earned her legions of tween fans – and given her the nickname “the human emoji.” She has even earned a partnership deal with Crest toothpaste – which makes complete sense once you see her smile.
With the competition behind her, a carefree Hernandez sat down with PEOPLE at the P&> Family Home in Rio to talk about the games, her fans, and her future.
You’ve had an amazing time here at the Olympics. What has been the best part of being part of the Final Five?
It was great to really experience it with these other girls. We were all from different backgrounds, but we came together for a reason. I loved that about it.
You have spoken before about your heritage, and how important it was for you to represent Hispanics. What did you mean by that?
We’re a very diverse group this year with gymnastics, and I think that’s amazing. I think that it’s such a great thing for me to represent Hispanics.
When I was a little kid, I don’t remember looking up and seeing so many Hispanic athletes out there. But look at this Olympics. There was Monica Puig, who I think is just awesome!”
So what’s the message of the Final Five?
The message is don’t stop at anything. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Hispanic. If you want something, just go out and do it.
I hope that little girls – black, white, Hispanic, whatever – can look at our team and find someone to inspire them.
Do you think of yourself fas a role model?
I don’t know. Gosh, I want to be a role model. I want to be able to know that I inspired girls to work hard and go for their dreams, and to never give up. I hope that is the message that people get when they see me. I hope the Final Five has shown that everyone is capable of success if they work hard.
I wasn’t just representing Hispanics; I was representing Team U.S.A. I hope people understand that.
What’s something that would surprise people gymnastics?
I think people don’t know how much work goes into it sometimes. I wish people could watch the hard days that we all go through. I wish they could see the days when it’s just really rough, and that we have to push through it, and still come out with a smile. Then they’d understand.
You’re going on a nationwide tour where you’ll get to see a lot of fans up close. Looking forward to it?
Absolutely! It’s a 36-city tour. I’m just so excited. We’ll go out there and enjoy ourselves while we’re out there. You’ll really see this happiness radiate through all of us!
So how do you handle school while training and touring?
I’ve actually been homeschooled since the third grade. I’ve learned how to fit my schooling in – weekends, evenings. I’m good with the time management. I’m keeping up with my studies.
You’ve got a huge fanbase of tweens. Is that funny to you?
I think it’s hilarious and great! I think it’s because I’m almost in the same age level as them, and I’m doing something that they dreamed of doing. As a little kid, I watched the gymnasts and said, “Wow, mom. I want to go to the Olympics.” So the fact that I’m actually here is mind-blowing to me.