Gymnast Laurie Hernandez a ‘crowd pleaser’ — and she knows it

By Will Graves - Associated Press | August 4th, 2016 12:07 pm - updated: 5:08 pm.

Laurie Hernandez keeps insisting she’s too young to know better. That she’s so new to this whole Olympic thing, she doesn’t know she’s supposed to be scared.

“You just kind of have to act naive to it,” the 16-year-old from New Jersey said with a shrug. “It’s just another meet. The arena is just a little bigger than usual.”

The stakes, too. Yet the youngest member of the powerhouse U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team hardly seems intimidated. Hernandez is too busy putting on a show; her effortless charisma and “dare you to look away” performance during this summer’s Olympic trials erased whatever doubt remained in national team coordinator Marta Karolyi’s mind about Hernandez’s ability to handle the big stage.

If anything, Hernandez is trying to own it. Ask her what she considers her biggest talent and she doesn’t point to any particular physical attribute but something decidedly more abstract.

“I’m confident,” she said. “I’m a crowd pleaser.”

It shows, particularly when Hernandez’s floor music starts. What follows is 90 seconds of attitude and athleticism. Hernandez doesn’t dance so much as strut, every move joined by an electric smile that doesn’t seem plastered in place but remains an organic byproduct of the joy she’s feeling. She’s having a good time. And she wants you to notice.

Hernandez describes her gymnastics as “sassy,” but that’s underplaying it. Her tumbling is on par with anyone on the planet not named Simone Biles — the three-time world champion from Texas who is the heavy favorite to come back from Rio with a luggage full of gold medals — and her steady, detailed work on the balance beam is the result of thousands of hours spent with longtime coach Maggie Haney in an effort to get over a small bit of stage fright.

No, really.

Hernandez acknowledges there was a time early in her career when she was afraid of the beam. When she hopped on she’d settle into a squat because she couldn’t summon the courage to stand. Haney didn’t baby Hernandez to get her going. If anything, the coach went the other way, putting Hernandez through countless “pressure sets” designed to force her into a choice: Get mentally tough or find something else to do.

The strategy worked.

“I can only thank her for that because it’s made me so calm today,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez, who turned 16 on June 9, learned to harness her talents. She rose from 21st in junior nationals in 2012 to junior champion last summer despite wrist and knee injuries that sidelined her for most of 2014. When a knee sprain threatened to derail her momentum this year, Haney offered a brief, pointed pep talk.

“I looked at her, ‘It is time. Now,’” Haney said. “She snapped and went into kind of crazy … mode. Every practice, every time on the floor was important to her.”

The eye-opener came at the Pacific Rim Championships in April, when she finished third behind Biles and three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman of the U.S. It wasn’t just the praise from Karolyi that she noticed — it was the way people responded to her.

“You hear cheering and clapping and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t even know these people,’” Hernandez said. “It brings a lot of energy.”

Energy that practically radiates off Hernandez, who considers herself a gymnast above all else. Sure her smile makes it look easy, but don’t let her playful demeanor fool you — she might be the bubbliest workaholic around. She’s home-schooled and spends most days working out with Haney at one of the two gyms near her home in Old Bridge, New Jersey, about an hour south of New York City. Pressed if she has friends outside the gym, she laughs and says not really.

That’s changing by the day. Biles considers her “a little sister.” Twitter verified her account (@lzhernandez02) after the Olympic trials. The mayor of Old Bridge threw a party for her this summer.

As for college in a few years, she has verbally committed to Florida. She downplayed the idea of turning professional even as NBC cameras tripped over themselves following her every move at the trials. Hernandez won’t decide until after Rio, so there won’t be any distractions.

“It’s all happening really fast,” she said. “This is a really cool part of my life.”

One getting cooler by the day.

Simone Biles Biles
Despite being the youngest member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, Laurie Hernandez, 16, hasn't been intimidated by the hype surrounding the Americans' high hopes for Rio. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File) being the youngest member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, Laurie Hernandez, 16, hasn't been intimidated by the hype surrounding the Americans' high hopes for Rio. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

By Will Graves

Associated Press