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Laurie Hernandez Won’t Let You Look Away

The 16-year-old may not be the best gymnast on the U.S. Olympic team, but she’s set to be the most captivating in Rio

"It was almost, like, sass overdose," said Laurie Hernandez one recent July morning in a downtown San Jose hotel lobby, her doe eyes emphatic and wide. While videographers lingered nearby, the teenager sat on a banquet chair at a round folding table covered by a white tablecloth, reflecting, in the grand tradition of high school–age girls everywhere, on a minor but important event from her very-recent past.

But unlike most of her cohort born in the year 2000, Hernandez wasn’t gossiping over possibly spiked punch at prom. She hasn’t even attended a regular school since third grade. One night earlier, at the gymnastics Olympic trials, the 16-year-old became the youngest athlete to be named to the five-woman squad that is widely expected to vault over the competition in Rio this August. Thrilled and exhausted, she chatted with a handful of reporters about the past few months of her life, a time period which included some rejected floor exercise music; a stint at a famed Texas ranch; and discussions with a quorum featuring national team matriarch Martha Karolyi.

Earlier this spring, Hernandez had sat in a room at Martha and Bela Karolyi’s forested gymnastics training compound in Huntsville, Texas, with Martha, who is the national team’s coordinator, and Maggie Haney, the coach Hernandez has worked with since she was 5 years old. National team choreographer Dominic Zito and USA Gymnastics judge Cheryl Hamilton, among others, were there too for the purpose of weighing in on new floor exercise music for Hernandez to use in the upcoming national championships and Olympic trials.

Someone pressed play, and the first clip filled the room. "Everybody liked it, but I didn’t," said Hernandez of the sample, which she found too over-the-top even for her demonstrative floor routine. She piped up with her thoughts. "Martha said: ‘You know, if she doesn’t like it, she’s not going to do it well,’" Hernandez recalled. A second clip was universally panned. And a third piece of music, "Da Bop" by WTF!, was determined to be the one. "It was kinda funny," Hernandez said of the record-scratchy, old-timey melody that opens the song before a peppier remix kicks in, "because Martha said she used to dance to this music when she was younger."

The song and the routine have been trademark Hernandez ever since: uplifting, buoyant, eminently clap-alongable, a true joy to observe. (And that was before any mental association between Hernandez’s routine and a young Martha Karolyi cutting a rug.) On the first night of the Olympic trials, Hernandez’s well-received floor exercise helped her power past an earlier mistake on the uneven bars, where she’d gotten slightly stuck on a handstand pirouette. On the second night, the fans packing the San Jose Sharks’ home arena knew what to expect, and chants of "LAU-RIE!" filled the SAP Center before her routine even began.

It was only a few months ago that Hernandez, who turned 16 in June, even became old enough to debut on the senior level. She won the all-around bronze medal at her first senior international meet in Italy in March, finished third of 24 gymnasts at the national championships in June, and came in second of 14 gymnasts at the Olympic trials. In just a few weeks, she’ll be saluting stern international judges under the world’s watch as part of an American fivesome that heads to Rio under almost outrageous pressure: They’re projected not only to win gold in the team competition, but also to medal in every individual category and to win the all-around, too.

Hernandez may not be as polished as Aly Raisman, the 22-year-old captain who teammates call "Grandma," or as envelope-pushing and hair-raising as Simone Biles, the three-time reigning world champion and general best gymnast on the planet. She may not be an Olympic gold medalist and reality show subject, as Gabby Douglas is.

But Hernandez has a style all her own, one that made the usually stoic Martha Karolyi exclaim "wow!" at the nationals in June, and that made the SAP Center crowd at the Olympic trials chant her name less than a month later. The northern New Jersey native with Puerto Rican grandparents has the face of a Disney princess and the ligament of a cadaver in her surgically-repaired knee. She flings and hurls herself through space, squirmy and exuberant and somehow in control. She strives, variously, to remain both "sassy" and "naive." She’s the product of a local, loyal coach and of a national gymnastics talent recognition machine. She’s as captivating a presence as anyone in American gymnastics, and she’s peaking at a pretty great time.

If Maggie Haney is in the car by seven in the morning, her 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son all buckled in, she can get to Hernandez’s home in Old Bridge, New Jersey, by 7:30. "Then she comes with me to drop off my kids at my friend’s house, or drop off my daughter to school," Haney said, ticking off the itinerary with a weary efficiency. "And then we drive to the gym."

Some days it’s an easy trip, 10 or 15 minutes or so to Monmouth Gymnastics Academy in Morganville, where Haney runs MG Elite, the gymnastics team she started in 2007 that has been home to Hernandez’s development ever since. They listen to music — Drake or Kanye, usually — en route. A few days a week, though, Haney rents space at a 25,000-square foot facility called Gymland in Hamilton, New Jersey, that was built in an old ice rink and is tricked out with top-of-the-line equipment that is easier on gymnasts’ bodies and more closely resembles the conditions of international competition. That gym is farther away — 45 minutes to an hour — and Hernandez usually falls asleep on the way. "We get there and I’m like, ‘OK, wake up,’" Haney said. "She puts her contacts in, and then we start our day."

Hernandez and Maggie Haney (Getty Images)
Hernandez and Maggie Haney (Getty Images)

Haney and Hernandez have been spending their days together for the past decade. The youngest of three kids and the daughter of a court clerk and a social worker, Hernandez took dance lessons as a young child. (During her first recital, one family story goes, the curtain opened, most of the stage-frightened dancers burst into tears, and Hernandez said she "was just like, doo-da-doo-doo … the only one dancing.") But she agitated for something more, and was enrolled in a recreational beginner gymnastics class taught by Haney’s sister, Carli.

Maggie Haney had been a decorated gymnast at NC State — she was the first in the program’s history to earn a perfect 10, doing so on beam and floor — and, briefly, an assistant coach at Rutgers. Now she was coaching young gymnasts who were trying to work their way through the 10 training levels of USA Gymnastics (some of which are represented, by some apparent hieroglyphics, here). Carli Haney, enamored by Hernandez’s charm and the quickness with which she picked up her first cartwheel and split, told Maggie that she might want to move Hernandez up into her Level 3 class. "She was always so happy, so excited," Maggie Haney said. "She literally made every practice fun."

Maggie Haney had never coached an elite-level gymnast before — that is, someone in the U.S. national team program — and didn’t initially have the frame of reference to realize that Hernandez could be headed for that kind of career. She knew that the young girl was really good, and that she picked up new skills really quickly — so quickly, in fact, that Haney began worrying she was stalling her progress. "She started competing [at] Level 4 when she was 7," Haney said in a 2013 interview with the GymCastic podcast. "Then I kept her with her group and she did Level 5. Then I kept her with her group and she did Level 6. And I started noticing, ‘Wait, she’s way too good to move this slow through the levels.’"

But it wasn’t until she looked into USA Gymnastics’ Talent Opportunity Program, known as TOPs, that Haney actually realized what kind of athlete she might have on her hands. TOPs provides a framework for evaluating 7- to 10-year-old gymnasts based on a combination of specific gymnastics skills and more general physical feats, like climbing a rope with legs parallel to the floor or holding a handstand for a given amount of time. Hernandez, it turned out, had the no. 1 TOPs score of any 9-year-old in the country. She and Haney were soon invited to Texas for what would be the first of many, many trips to the Karolyi Ranch.

"I think Laurie is a true artist," said Valdi Kolasa, a former Polish national team gymnast who came to the United States in 1989 on a gymnastics scholarship to Northern Illinois. He and his wife Ann Kist-Kolasa bought an ice rink in 2008 and turned it into Gymland, where Haney now brings Hernandez and some of her other promising gymnasts to train. It’s an arrangement that works out well for both parties: Haney’s top athletes work out during the day, while Gymland is otherwise unoccupied. (Gymland does have a competitive program of its own, but not one based on a homeschool model like MG Elite.)

"She can move her body," said Kolasa. "In recent years, gymnastics has moved toward being very athletic. They are throwing a lot of hard-level skills, but the artistry starts to be missing — those dance leaps and everything. I was really happy to see somebody like her on the national team, because I think she’s one of the only ones who can perform."

Changes to the gymnastics scoring system in 2006 eliminated from major international competition the "perfect 10" of previous generations. (It does still exist at some levels, including the NCAA.) In its place is a system that combines two scores — one for difficulty, one for execution — and has made the American team the Olympic front-runner before competition has even begun. While a score of around 15.5 or above is satisfying, there’s theoretically no maximum score, which means currently the sport has semi-officially been operating on a scale of one-to–Simone Biles.

Gabby Douglas, Hernandez, and Simone Biles (Getty Images)
Gabby Douglas, Hernandez, and Simone Biles (Getty Images)

Biles, now 19, was too young for the 2012 Olympics by a matter of months, although she told The New Yorker it wouldn’t have mattered: "I sucked anyways," she said. But she’s now the three-time world champion, and she’s the three-time world champion by a lot. People describe her in celestial terms: She’s the best on the planet, she’s otherworldly, she dazzles, she’s mythological, she’s a star. Under the new scoring system there’s a tug-of-war between difficulty and execution: change one and you’re at risk of messing with the other. Biles continually levels up in both. The combined difficulty scores of her four events hovers around 25.9, about a full point higher than anyone else’s in a sport where medals are sometimes decided by decimals.

The conventional wisdom is that the true competition in Rio will be for second place, and heading into the pre-Olympics training camp, Hernandez has shown impressive signs that she might be on that sort of trajectory. On three of the four nights of competition at nationals and Olympic trials, she pointed out, she finished second to Biles. The difficulty scores of several of her routines have increased over the past months, particularly on the uneven bars and balance beam.

But her presentation has not suffered, and she still has a signature look to her movements: her arms fluid, her back arched, her vibe one of genuine artistic abandon. Haney’s choreography includes the precise deployment of facial expressions, which is one reason International Gymnast Magazine ran a profile on Hernandez in November of 2015 titled "Human Emoji." Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who, like Hernandez, hails from Old Bridge (along with Vitamin C, they form a trio of the town’s most famous natives) wrote in an email that "her floor routine is extraordinary, something out of an ecstatic’s dream."

When Hernandez hits — as she did on the beam during the Olympic trials — she becomes a legitimate contender for a spot on the all-around podium. And when she doesn’t — as was the case on the uneven bars at trials — she’s learned how to differentiate between bad mistakes and acceptable ones.

"Me and my coach, we’re always talking about striving for perfection," she said, shrugging off the missed pirouette on the bars on the first night of the Olympic trials. "Go big or go home." Her message that night seemed to be that the potential upside of the attempt had been worth the risk, and that next time the outcome might be different. Martha Karolyi, a few minutes later, said that what happened after the mistake, when Hernandez brought down the house with her floor routine and finished the night in second place to Biles, was more important than the mistake itself.

"Sure, I’m not happy when mistakes happen," Karolyi said. "But you can handle that in all different ways, and Laurie handled that well. With the experience, and with the good [competitive] spirit, they can handle it. Some girls would maybe freak out, and just jump off."

Three years ago, on the GymCastic podcast, Haney recalled that there came a time when she thought Hernandez might have stalled out. During the first Level 8 meet she competed in, "she did a tucked Yurchenko right to her face," Haney said, referring to a botched vault maneuver. "And I’m going, she’s never going to make it through Level 8. And by the end of the year, she won her state meet and she won regionals." By the time Hernandez was 10, she was homeschooled, training 35 hours a week, and telling a local news crew of her goal to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. "I want to be famous," she said. "I want to be on TV." And by age 11, Hernandez was competing in her first elite-level meet, finishing 11th in the junior division at the Secret U.S. Classic. (Simone Biles, 15 at the time, came in first.)

The USA Gymnastics elite program is structured in such a way that the gymnasts work out on a daily basis at their home gyms with their own coaches and make monthly trips to the Karolyi Ranch for training camps and in-house competitions and general oversight by USA Gymnastics leadership. As Hernandez continued to make a name for herself in elite competition, her success was Haney’s as well: In 2013 a young New Jersey gymnast named Jazmyn Foberg got in touch to say she felt she had plateaued at Level 10 at her hometown gym and hoped to elevate herself to the elite level by working with Haney and alongside Hernandez at MG Elite. By 2015, Hernandez and Foberg were finishing first and second at junior nationals out of a field of 27.

"A magician," Kist-Kolasa said about Haney. (The Gymland owners watched the Olympic trials with a bottle of Champagne ready to pop if Hernandez made the team, and they recently bought tickets for a week in Rio. "[Haney] has the eye of an eagle," Kolasa added. ) "I am very neurotic, apparently," Haney told GymCastic in the 2013 interview. "I notice the hands, I notice her thumb being in or her thumb being out or her left foot being turned in or her back foot not pointing. I notice all of that stuff and anything not perfect is like nails on a chalkboard to me." After Haney delivered her son via C-section one Monday in 2013, she said on the podcast, she was back in the gym training her athletes by that Saturday.

But for all of Haney’s attention to detail, for all her devotion, it’s Martha Karolyi who, for one last Olympics, is firmly at the helm. Not only is this supposed to be a team for the ages, it will also be Karolyi’s final project; she is retiring after Rio. And she will be the ultimate arbiter of which of the five gymnasts going to Rio will get a chance to qualify for the all-around competition. Biles is expected to win it easily, but whether she’ll be joined by Douglas, Raisman, or Hernandez is a question that won’t be answered until Rio. The choice between two returning Olympic medalists and a fresh-faced 16-year-old is not an easy one, though Karolyi is not typically one to dwell in the past.

Hernandez has made a fantastic case for a spot in the all-around with her performances over the past few months, but Karolyi is known for holding out on these decisions as long as possible in order to better motivate her athletes at pre-Olympic training camp. Her selection of the erratic Douglas, who finished seventh at trials, to the Olympic team frustrated some observers. (The top finisher at trials, Biles, automatically makes the team, but the rest are determined by decree.) Douglas was a hot topic in the online gymnastics community known as the Gymternet — particularly after she demoted a coach on the first day of the Olympic trials, then had a nagging injury revealed by her mother after she made the team.

Still, while Karolyi’s presence looms large, the primary coaching relationship in Rio will remain the one between Hernandez and Haney. Hernandez, the Kolasas said, often remarks: "I don’t have to worry about anything, because Maggie worries for me." Hernandez’s family might say the same; Wanda Hernandez told espnW that she doesn’t really know the moves in her daughter’s routines, because she doesn’t want to be stressed about her missing an element.

Haney’s fiancé, David Stringer — whose mother, C. Vivian Stringer, is the longtime Rutgers basketball coach — cut the music for Hernandez’s floor routine, as he does for other MG Elite girls. With the crush of the Olympics approaching, Haney has ramped up her efforts to shield Hernandez from distractions as well as worries. "My job is to keep her healthy and get her mentally ready," she said. "I was saying to Vicki [Levine, another MG Elite coach] today, I’m like — I know [Hernandez] so good. I just know, kinda like, how to control her mind. I’m impressing myself with that!"

The biggest potential distraction for Hernandez is a common question in elite gymnastics: whether to turn pro and accept money for endorsement deals and the like, or maintain her unpaid amateur status in order to honor a verbal commitment to attend the University of Florida alongside Foberg on a gymnastics scholarship. Recently Biles, who had committed to UCLA, opted to forfeit her eligibility in order to form partnerships with sponsors like Nike and Kellogg’s going into the Rio Games. On the other hand, 2012 team member Jordyn Wieber spoke out about her regrets over turning pro prematurely and missing out on the camaraderie of collegiate athletics. (Unable to compete for UCLA, she wound up managing the team.) It’s a difficult question for Hernandez, particularly as her popularity, and the short-term earning potential that comes with it, becomes harder and harder to avoid.

"A world-class Boricua gymnast from Old Bridge?" said Díaz in his email. "Shoot, when I hear of any Latinos out of Jersey doing anything I’m all over it. As soon as I found out about Laurie Hernandez I became a fan and was so happy when she made the team." He’s not alone in this sentiment, and it isn’t just proud Jersey-based Latinos who love Hernandez, either. A winning performance in Rio could elevate her to a household name.

If the U.S. national team had a mantra, Hernandez said the morning after making the Olympic team, it would be: break the beam. "We do a lot of pounding in our routines," she said, "and you don’t want to go out there and be soft and careful. You want to go out there and be quick and expressive. Our term is just: break the beam."

Being 16 years old makes it easier, physically and mentally, for Hernandez to do this; she’s young enough that this doesn’t have to be her last shot — this year’s Olympic team has an average age of 19.2 years, up from 16.2 in 2012 — but she and Haney also know that it might be her best one. They’ve had their sights set on Rio ever since they realized Hernandez was special, and earlier this season, when Hernandez returned from a minor injury setback, Haney told her: "Listen, it’s time. It is now." Hernandez, Haney said, "snapped and went into a kind of crazy person mode … every practice and every turn was so important to her."

Getty Images
Getty Images

There’s no discipline that requires attention to every turn quite like the balance beam. Hernandez said that a recent Under Armour commercial, which featured Olympic teammate Madison Kocian, an uneven bars specialist, really "nailed it" when it came to depicting the tedious work that goes into training, adding that Haney had told her that you win the medals in the gym, and just receive them at the meets. During a conference call a week after the trials — Hernandez was, of course, speaking from inside Haney’s car — a reporter asked for her thoughts on the balance beam: "Do you even like doing the beam routine now, or is it still like eating your vegetables?"

"It’s kind of like having a chicken Caesar salad," Hernandez replied. "The salad part is really healthy, but the Caesar dressing is not. When you mix the two together, it’s OK. It’s not a bad lunch."

On the last night of the Olympic trials, Hernandez pointed the toes on her right foot, collected herself, and skip-hopped down the slim length of the chalky balance beam. Douglas had fallen earlier on the cruel apparatus, and, much more shockingly, so had Biles. Hernandez, in a spangled pink leotard that matched her eyeshadow, was up last.

Not all Olympic dreams are the Wheaties box kind, and Hernandez had seen a scenario like this before, in her sleep. "Most people say that when they have anxiety dreams, they’re falling and then they wake up right before they hit the ground," she had said a few days earlier. "For me, it’s more that I’m doing a front [flip], and I miss my feet on the beam, and I just over-rotate and right before I hit my face on the mat, I wake up."

When Hernandez took the beam, though, everyone in the SAP Center was wide awake, and there were no missed landings, or over-rotations, or collisions between mat and face. Hernandez landed her front flip and nailed the rest of her routine, strong and stealthy, a glittering ninja. She broke the beam, she sealed her ticket to Rio, and she lit up the room the way no one else had. For the second time that night the fans chanted her name, and she was so focused, she later admitted, that she didn’t even hear.

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