When Laurie Hernandez made the Olympic team on the night of July 10th, her first thought was: “Oh my gosh, it’s actually happening!” And when she returned to her home gym for the first time after the Olympic Trials, she was greeted by her teammates, a congratulatory banner, and lots of glitter. But that was just the beginning.

The 16-year-old, who trains at MG Elite in New Jersey, has been on an incredible journey over the last several years, rising from a promising young gymnast to an Olympian. She has been coached by Maggie Haney since she was about five years old. “[When Laurie was] around nine, I realized she was pretty good, and around 12, I realized she was really good,” recounted Maggie in a media conference call on July 15th. “And last year when she became the junior national champion, I realized we were right on track for reaching this goal this year, as long as we stayed the path and followed the plan and nothing really went too traumatically wrong. We’re just really fortunate that she’s had basically overall good [physical and] mental health for the last year, and so training went really well and we’re just excited to be where we are now.”

Laurie is the youngest member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team, and she’s definitely excited. “I think this is a really great opportunity for me to go out there and get all this experience,” she enthused. “Martha does a really good job of just setting [up] everything at the camps as it would be at a meet, so when I went to [the 2016 Pacific Rim Championships] it wasn’t too much different than at a camp, honestly. I’m kind of expecting Rio to be basically like PacRims and all the training to be exactly the same.”

How has life been for Laurie since Sunday’s life-changing announcement? “It’s definitely a crazy time, and no one really can prepare you for the week after you make the Olympic team,” noted Maggie. “I can tell you that’s been a real whirlwind. I’ve been trying my best to keep up with everything for her, but it’s not so easy. [But] I’m obviously still happy with the result.”
Upon being named an Olympian, Laurie became an overnight celebrity. She’s gained thousands of Twitter followers and media attention from all over the country, in addition to increased interest in her hometown. Laurie mentioned that she’s had many neighbors and friends stopping by to congratulate her, while Maggie has been on the phone “pretty much all day, every day, trying to make sure everything on the outside is set up okay, nothing’s getting out of control.”

Since returning from the Trials in San Jose, Laurie has participated in an open media day at her gym and a meet and greet at a local high school (which was organized by her hometown and the mayor with Maggie’s assistance). “I know there are a lot of media people that are not happy that they can’t get their hands on her right now, but it’s just what it has to be,” explained Maggie. “This job is not done, and we want to focus on the gymnastics, and then we will do all the media stuff afterward when we get home [from Rio].”

Part of the reason that Laurie attracts so much attention is because she has such unique floor routines, and her endless expressiveness has earned her the nickname of “The Human Emoji.”

“There’s a lot of facial expressions in my floor routines…just in general and in interviews, and I think people laugh at those and they like the way my face looks, I guess!” Laurie laughed.

With all the media interest in Laurie, it’s natural to think that she might make the decision to go pro instead of competing in NCAA gymnastics at the University of Florida, where she is verbally committed for the 2018 season. But Laurie hasn’t made any decisions regarding her amateur status yet. “We haven’t discussed anything like that yet,” she said. “I think that all that should be decided after the Olympics. We’re headed straight onto the Olympics right now and we don’t want any distractions.”

Maggie does her best to shield Laurie from distractions and from focusing on the outcome of a competition. “I try to keep the focus strictly in the gym,” she remarked. “Don’t think about what the situation is, or don’t look at the bright lights, even the judges. Before she competes, she doesn’t actually look the judges in the eyes. I stand behind the judges and she salutes and she looks right at me, she doesn’t even look at the judges. We just try to make it like, ‘You’re in our gym, it’s normal, and you just show me a good routine.’”

Laurie’s concentration has shifted from Trials to the pre-Olympic training camp at Martha Karolyi’s famous ranch in Houston, Texas. Both Laurie and her coach are excited to head back to the ranch for the most important camp of their careers. “The U.S. and Martha [have] set up really an amazing system,” remarked Maggie. “We leave and work so quietly and segregated … [at] a little random place in Texas, because it’s really nice to get away from everything and just get back in the gym and train. So we’re actually really excited to go to a camp and escape all the madness. It’s all good madness, but we’re definitely excited to have a little quiet time and just concentrate.” She feels that this Olympic camp won’t be much different than all the other past camps. “Martha will set the assignment and we have to follow her plan. We pretty much know what the day-to-day plan is, so we’re pretty prepared for that. The difference is it’s going for a long time; this is a nine-day training camp versus a five-day training camp, so it’s a little bit longer but we know what we’re in for.”

After the Olympic camp, Rio will be next on Laurie’s agenda. She definitely doesn’t plan on upgrading anything before the Olympic Games. “We’re just trying to clean everything up,” she stressed, adding that she has no specific goals for Rio. “I’m just going to go out there and do what I’ve been doing in the gym and not chase anything. We’re just going to do our best to stay consistent, to show some good execution and where I end up is just where I end up.”

Maggie agrees. “We try really hard to focus on the results on the floor, just focus on the clean, consistent gymnastics, and then the rest should just hopefully take care of itself.”

One major aspect that gymnastics fans have been discussing is the question of which U.S. gymnasts will compete in the all-around in the Rio qualifications. “It would be an amazing opportunity to compete all-around,” said Laurie. “At P&Gs and at Olympics Trials, three out of four times I’ve come in second place to Simone. But all this will be decided at the camp and at all the training that we’re about to have, so we’ll find out then.”

Despite competing against each other in nearly every competition, the five members of the new U.S. Olympic team are great friends. “Simone and I are definitely really close; we’re always giggling, basically always,” Laurie joked. “We have Aly, a.k.a Mama Aly…Madison, she’s so sweet. She’s really quiet, but we all click really well, and Gabby is always laughing too, so that’s really cool.”

Laurie’s hoping to meet Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps when she gets to the Olympic Village. “I think that would be really cool,” she said. “I’m [also] kind of hoping to see Flavia [Saraiva, Brazilian gymnast] again, because she’s so cute.”

Laurie, the first U.S.-born Hispanic female gymnast to qualify to the Olympics in over 30 years, was never deterred from her sport by the fact that there have been few Hispanic gymnasts on the U.S. stage. “I think people are people,” she said. “If you want something, go get it. I don’t think it matters what race you are. If you want to try hard enough to go to the Olympics, then you’re going to go out there and do it. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

The main key to Laurie’s success is her mindset. “I think a couple of years ago when I got into big competitions, I was really frazzled because I had no experience,” she reflected. “Now that I’m doing all these big competitions, I think I’ve just learned to control my nerves and control my mindset and I think that’s where maturity comes in.” She added that before she goes on any event she thinks of a positive quote that reminds her to believe in herself. This tidbit about her pre-routine preparation is another testament to Laurie’s wise and mature outlook on her sport and her life.

“As a little kid, [the Olympics are] all you dream about,” she remarked. “The fact that we’re actually going to the Olympics with such an amazing and strong team, I think it’s just a dream come true. I’ve wanted this for a really long time and I’m super grateful to actually have it happen. It’s an honor to be able to go out to the Olympics and represent USA.”

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Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com