For Gymnast Laurie Hernandez, The Time Is Now

By Joanne C. Gerstner | July 20, 2016, 1:50 p.m. (ET)
Laurie Hernandez competes in the floor exercise at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women's Gymnastics at SAP Center on July 10, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.


This is actually happening.

It’s been over a week since Laurie Hernandez’s dream came true, when she was named as one of five female gymnasts to represent Team USA in the upcoming Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

Hernandez is a standout on a squad of superstars. The youngest team member at age 16, she’s confidently bubbly and quick to laugh, and not shy about her love of performance and seizing big moments.

Hernandez and her coach, Maggie Haney, chatted on a media conference call before departing her native New Jersey for a USA Gymnastics’ pre-Olympic training camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas.

The teen admits she was a little less calm nearly two weeks ago, when she first heard she was bound for Rio, after showing very well at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, California.

“I was, ‘OH MY GOSH!’… it’s actually happening!” she said.

This is actually happening. All of it.

The girl who grew up saying she wanted to be an Olympian, and a famous world-class gymnast, has arrived.

It’s not unusual for a 16-year-old to be part of the U.S. team. If history has served as a lesson, being young means something good, as American stars Gabby Douglas, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton captured Olympic gold in the all-around at 16.

But that serious scenario is not yet in Hernandez’s mind. Her dream was to be on the Olympic team. Haney said she is working hard to keep Hernandez focused and away from the intense swirl of everything around her.

“That’s all I have done this week, trying to keep her in the dark with everything going on,” said Haney, who has coached Hernandez since she was 5. “The less she knows, the better. We’re really excited to be here, and we’ve not talked about goals at all. We definitely have a job to do.

“Having reached the Olympics is a huge goal. The rest is icing on the cake. We want to enjoy the moment.”

Hernandez appreciates Haney being her protector in these uncharted moments, as the two have a close bond. But still, even Haney, who is a first-time Olympic coach, admits life is also hyper-sensory and new to her right now.

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Hernandez’s world is now off-the-charts reactions of love and fandom from friends, neighbors and strangers around her in her hometown of Old Bridge, New Jersey. She sees 1,000 people, plus the mayor, packing the town’s high school gym on a Thursday night to get her autograph and wish her well.

There are now non-stop phone calls blowing up Haney’s phone. Her Twitter account of @lzhernandez02 is stream of emoji-laden tweets of congratulations. The flowers. The balloons. The edible bouquets delivered to the gym. The cards. The selfies.

Monmouth Gymnastics has been overloaded by calls from parents who want Haney to coach their child into being the next Olympian. (For the record, Haney says, “I never can promise that.”)

Hernandez now has precious hand-colored drawings of Olympic rings from aspiring little gymnasts who want to be her when they grow up.

And there has been glitter. Oh so much glitter.

Haney and Hernandez thought they would have a low-key practice last Wednesday, their first time back in the gym since the trials. Little did they know the students would be lining the sidewalk to the door, showering Hernandez with torrents of glitter. A banner now hangs, congratulating Hernandez for making the Olympic team.

The practice wasn’t exactly focused, as the louder-than-a-whisper star-struck voices of “There she is!” refrained from the excited young gymnasts.

This is actually happening.

Hernandez’s inclusion on the Olympic roster was not a given at the start of the season. After stalled progress in 2014 due to multiple injuries, Hernandez worked hard to regain her form on the junior level in 2015, winning the all-around titles at the U.S. junior championships and the International Junior Japan Meet.

She started 2016 — her big jump to the senior level and the path to the U.S. Olympic Team — with a knee strain. Haney told Hernandez, when she was healed in the spring, that she needed to train with a new mental strength if she wanted to be prepared for the Olympic Trials.

“I looked at her and said, ‘It’s time — now,’” Haney said. “She snapped into it … every practice, every turn, is very important to her. That’s where the intensity came from.”

Haney and Hernandez do not plan any alterations in her routines for Rio, instead using the U.S. training camp and practice time in Rio to fine-tune.

“We’re both excited to go,” Haney said about the training camp. “The U.S. has set up an amazing system. Now being on the different side of it, we get to be quiet and segregated off in a random place in Texas — it’s nice to get away from everything, get back in the gym and train.

“This all good madness, but we’re looking forward to having some quiet time.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.