Laurie Hernandez: Why the 16-Year-Old Latina Gymnast May Be Rio's Breakout Star
Laurie Hernandez was a standout star of the Olympic trials Sunday night
After a hard-fought Olympic trials, the women’s gymnastics team is set. The new Rio-bound Fierce Five includes familiar names such as London Olympics individual all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas, 2012 Team U.S.A. vet Aly Raisman and four-time U.S. all-around gymnastics champion Simone Biles. But at the conclusion of her stellar beam routine on Sunday night, fans in the stands were chanting another gymnast’s name: Laurie Hernandez.
The 16-year-old phemon is from New Jersey had Twitter buzzing, praising her as “my new favorite for the Rio Olympics” and “the 2016 Gabby Douglas.”
“There’s something that sparkles,” Wanda Hernandez said of her daughter during Sunday’s NBC broadcast. “I love her smile. I love the joy. And I love the determination and the passion that she has.”
Get to know gymnastics’ rising star below.
1. Hernandez is repping the Latinas
Hernandez is not only one of the youngest Team U.S.A. athletes to compete in Rio, she’s also the first Latina gymnast on its gymnastics team since 2004.
2. She’s been doing gymnastics since she was 5 years old
“I started off doing dance and ballet, [but] it was pretty boring,” Hernandez told Teen Vogue. “Then I remember watching gymnastics on TV and telling my mom I wanted to do [that], and she put me right in.”
The gymnast began lessons in her hometown of Old Bridge, New Jersey, where she met her longtime coach, Maggie Haney.
3. The crowd loves her floor routine … and she wows on beam
The crowd at the Olympic trials went wild when when Hernandez’s score of 15.70 for balance beam was revealed. She stuck her double pike dismount, helping her earn the best score of the weekend for the event.
“After beam, I couldn’t hear anything,” Hernandez told ESPN. “I was still in focus. I can’t hear anything when I’m focused. But before floor, I heard them chanting my name.”
However, she’s a force to be reckoned with in every event. At the national championships in 2015, Hernandez won all-around gold and also medals on all four events, including gold on uneven bars, as well as silver on floor exercise, and bronzes on vault and balance beam.
4. Her nickname is the Human Emoji
International Gymnast Magazine called Hernandez the “Human Emoji” due to her plethora of facial expressions. From flashing a big smile for the cameras to giving a big dose of sass during her floor routine, Hernandez gives her routines an extra bit of flavor.
5. Hernandez’s maturity comes in part from having older siblings
Hernandez’s mother reveals that her daughter’s eloquent way of speaking and ability to perform under major pressure come from growing up with a 20-year-old brother and 27-year-old sister.
“I think that prepared her to be able to communicate,” Wanda told ESPN. “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.”
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How Gabby Douglas Made the Squad
Since the conclusion of the trials Sunday night, viewers have been buzzing about how Douglas, 20, earning a spot on the team, despite falling off the balance beam both nights and placing seventh in the all-around.
“I’m sad that she didn’t stick it because I know how much she wanted to make that routine so amazingly perfect, but I know the greatness that she has in her and I know what she’s capable of,” Douglas’ mother Natalie Hawkins said on the NBC broadcast.
“She was working back from an injury and the fact that she could come back so strong was pretty phenomenal,” Hawkins said of Douglas belonging on the team. “And then her placement at Worlds was pretty amazing too, so I would say consider all the most recent competitions and see that they all make mistakes out there and don’t count it against her!”
Though she didn’t have a great meet at trials, it’s Douglas’s prowess on the uneven bars that earned her a ticket to Rio.
In the Olympic team final, three gymnasts compete on each apparatus and all three scores count. And Douglas contributes to the team on the uneven bars, U.S.A.’s weakest event.
“You can’t look at the all-around finish [at the trials],” former Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett, a commentator for NBC, tells PEOPLE. “For Team U.S.A., it’s like a big puzzle and they’ve gotta find the right pieces that fit. Some people have strength and some people have weaknesses. Simone isn’t weak on the uneven bars, but relative to her other events she is weak there. In the team finals, where only three up and three count, they want to find the top three athletes and Gabby Douglas with her bars, she gets that job done.”
Team coordinator Marta Karolyi believes they can work on Douglas’ consistency issues during training camp.
“I feel like if we put Gabby in regimented training, with daily planning and daily assignments, we will see improvement – just like we did last year,” Karolyi said Sunday night after the Olympic team was announced. “We have nine days of training camp, which is long, and we really put big importance on this training camp.”
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• With reporting by REBECCA SLOANE