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Mar21WedGymnast and dance competition winner Laurie Hernandez stays grounded in her faith. March 21, 2018 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
Her big brown eyes sparkled as Laurie Hernandez flashed a brief smile to the huge crowd of spectators at the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016. The normally bubbly 16-year-old was strictly business as she stared down the balance beam she was about to conquer. She took a deep breath, placed her hands on the beam and mouthed, “I got this!” She then effortlessly vaulted onto it and into a front split en route to helping her U.S. team bring home the gold medal.
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Laurie also earned her own individual silver medal from the balance beam, barely beating out teammate and quadruple gold medalist Simone Biles.
The teammates celebrated their success together.
“I’m so proud of her. She deserves it more than anyone,” Simone told Team USA’s writer Nick McCarvel, after their award ceremony.
As Simone knew, Laurie’s road to Rio wasn’t a smooth one.
“Early in 2014, I fractured my wrist, then injured my knee that June,” she recalls. “The last thing you want is time off when you are supposed to be training! Having to sit out and watch my teammates perform made me long so badly to be out there with them. But I knew there was still time to make a comeback. I believed physically, emotionally and mentally that I could do it.”
Dream Come True
Without skipping a beat, Laurie went from the Olympic finals into rehearsals for Dancing With the Stars that same year. She competed with dancer Val Chmerkovskiy and became the show’s youngest winner, not allowing herself to be intimidated by a roomful of adult competitors.
Where does a young teenager suddenly thrust into the bright lights of television get that kind of confidence?
“It was developed over years of training and took a long time to get to,” Laurie smiles. “I knew the more confident I was the better I could perform, because I was more comfortable. My mom is a social worker, so any time I’ve had difficulty in a competition through the years or had a rough day, she would give me ideas how to tame that, like speaking positively.”
Laurie’s unwavering confidence also comes from her strong faith in God, who has always been an important part of her daily life. Her favourite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
“I was raised by Christian parents,” she comments. “They were very passionate about my siblings and me being guided in the right direction. As an athlete, it’s important to me to have that foundation through all the ups and downs.”
However, what was intimidating was the drastic difference between competing as a gymnast and as half of a dancing duo.
“As a gymnast, you do everything solo and barefoot, so it was a big change to dance with a partner and wear high heels,” she laughs. “Both changes were uncomfortable for me at first, but I adjusted. We practised for four hours a day and it was gruelling, but I enjoyed every second on that show. It wasn’t until we got closer to the end that I thought we might actually have a chance to win. I was also used to only instrumental music in gymnastics and found itwas hard dancing to music with lyrics because I had to keep myself from singing along with it.”
The week before her win, Laurie had no voice to sing along with the lyrics even if it had been permitted. Tears clogged her throat as she danced soulfully and courageously with Val to the sad song Hollow. The video that introduced the dance showed clips of Laurie’s beloved Grandmother Bruny, who had passed away just days before. Showing a grace and strength far beyond her years, Laurie danced in tribute to a life well lived and loved.
“I saw you breathing into every move, using all of that emotion and channeling it into something beautiful for all of us to watch,” judge Carrie Ann Inaba told her, as Laurie and the audience wiped away their tears. Laurie earned straight 10s.
“It was a dream come true,” says Laurie of her win. “I felt the same joy as I had at the Olympics.”
Pushing Through Fear
Dancing With the Stars finished in November 2016, and in January 2017, Laurie came out with a New York Times bestseller I Got This—To Gold and Beyond. The book is dedicated to her grandmother, parents and siblings who have all been tremendous supporters. She has been busy with various appearances and book signings, and is scheduled to speak at The Salvation Army’s annual luncheon in San Antonio, Texas, on May 8.
“The first time I did a public speaking engagement I was nervous and thought I had nothing to share,” he remembers. “But now I look forward to doing it. I am becoming a social butterfly!”
Even though Laurie is often on the road and can’t always make it to church, staying strong in her faith is a priority, so she watches a lot of Christian content on YouTube. And no matter how busy her day will be, she makes sure to start it with prayer.
“There’s always time for that,” she maintains. “Whatever time you can spare, you need to pray.”
Something else she makes time for is helping others. She is of Puerto Rican descent and has been outspoken in fundraising for the island that was devastated by hurricane Maria this past September.
“Thankfully, my relatives there are OK, but Puerto Rico still needs aid,” she says.
In early fall, she visited Japan to coach gymnasts at U.S. military bases, and she enjoys encouraging other Olympic hopefuls.
“No matter what you take on, make sure you stay rooted in your faith and family,” Laurie advises. “And don’t let your fears stop you.”