She’s not old enough to vote, but Laurie Hernandez is old enough to go to the Olympics…
The 16-year-old Puerto Rican gymnast is the first U.S.-born Latina since 1984 to compete at the Olympics with the U.S. gymnastics team, and she’s also one of the youngest U.S. athletes headed to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Hernandez, who has won the hearts of many for her vibrant routines, continued her rapid ascension to become perhaps the best threat to Simone Biles’ long run at the top.
Her best event is the balance beam, a 45-second test of nerves that she treats like a workout on the beach. Her score of 15.7 over the weekend is gold-medal worthy if she can repeat it in Rio.
Six months ago, casual gymnastics fans didn’t know her name. By Sunday, Hernandez was a star. From the outside, Hernandez’s rise seems meteoric, an overnight sensation amid a boldfaced team of Olympic and world champions. But to those close to her, this moment has been inevitable.
“She has been in our program for so long. She grew up in our system,” said U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who remembers first seeing Hernandez at a national developmental camp when Hernandez was about 9. “It’s not like she just popped up here.”
Hernandez began appearing on Olympic watch lists last year after winning the 2015 junior national championship. She turned senior at the beginning of 2016 and celebrated her 16th birthday on June 9, but her relative lack of elite international experience makes what she has done over the past six months even more incredible. From March until June, she took a trio of bronze medals in the all-around at the City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy, Pac Rim Championships and the national championships.
“She proved herself over these two days and throughout the year,” Karolyi said. “She had no falls in any competitions that she presented this year. She had very good consistency.”
In San Jose, Hernandez was the top finisher both nights on beam, an apparatus that took down both Gabby Douglas and Biles during two nights of competition, and finished third on floor, fourth on vault and second in the all-around.
In the Olympics three-up, no-drop team competition format, Hernandez could compete as many as three events during and has a legitimate shot at being one of only two U.S. women who will contest the individual all-around.