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Olympian Laurie Hernandez, Mom: 'We're a Close-Knit Puerto Rican Family'

Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez and her mom Wanda spoke about her Olympic journey, her first endorsement, their faith and their Latino heritage.
Image: Gymnastics: U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Womens Gymnastics
File photo of Olympic medalist and gymnast Laurie Hernandez.Robert Hanashiro / Reuters

With her flawless and dazzling performance in Rio, 16-year old Olympian medalist and New Jersey native Laurie Hernandez has been the breakout star of the Summer Games. Fans of the sport point to the teen’s sass, confidence, poise, and athleticism.

Hernandez phoned us from Rio with her mom, Wanda, days after winning a Silver Medal for her dazzling beam performance and Gold Medal with fellow USA Team gymnasts, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Ally Raisman, and Madison Kocian. It’s no surprise that the Latina teenager with the enthusiastic smile nicknamed #thehumanemoji by her fans just scored her first endorsement with Crest toothpaste.

After your floor routine, the comments heard were, “A star is born,” and “The world will change for her.” People are calling you a breakout superstar!

When I hear that it just makes me laugh. My personality in general is pretty outgoing and I am generally a crowd pleaser. Being out there competing, I just really enjoy myself.

Besides meeting Zac Efron, how has your life changed since winning a Silver and a Gold with the Final Five?

(She cracks up.) Being a part of the Crest family with "Orgullosa" and going professional so far has been the high point.

At 16 years of age, you show a lot of maturity. And now you are going professional?

College is definitely 100 percent in my future. I am 16 years old and I feel that I have more to give to the sport. It was an exciting decision that wasn’t too hard.

You’re exciting to watch: your athleticism, confidence, and execution. A lot of little girls, and especially Latina girls, are now saying, “I want to to be like Laurie."

Awww. I am just really glad that I can inspire little girls.

Who were you winking at the start of your floor routine?

It was more toward the judges. It kind of made me laugh because I was kind of nervous before I got on the floor. I was just making sure I was reminding myself to breathe and I looked at the judges and I had an overwhelming sense of confidence. It hit me and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, I got this. I am fine.” And so it was just natural for me. I happened to wink and now it’s going viral.

Is it true that you mouth your mantra 'I got this' to your parents before each event?

It’s not necessarily to my parents, it’s to myself. I had a feeling of a little bit of nerves and I was praying before I got on the beam and as soon as I got up there I was reminding myself, “Be confident, you got this,” and I said it out loud and now it’s going viral.

Do you like the nickname fans gave you, The Human Emoji?

I think it matches pretty well. I am very, very expressive with my facial expressions.

President Obama says he loves and hates watching gymnasts because of the incredible twists and turns. He closes his eyes during the balance beam event and doesn’t know how parents can watch.

It’s kind of entertaining to watch parents when we are going. If you look at Aly Raisman’s parents and they kind of swing side to side because of how nervous they are. We were talking a couple of days ago to her parents they said, “I don’t think we can go to another gymnastics meet if Aly does another one. I think we will have to stay home and keep the nerves at bay.”

Wanda: My faith carries me through or else you would find me on the floor after Laurie is done.

And Laurie, I heard you keep a little bottle of peppermint oil to calm you down.

Oh yeah. I put a drop or two on my wrists and smell it and I notice that it does help me calm down.

You tweeted that all your practice paid off after you finished your balance beam routine. What people don’t see is the hard work to prepare. Is it true that you are a happy workaholic?

Oh yeah. I was just in the gym working as hard as I could. I really got to know my skills so when I was out there competing I felt calm and collected and very comfortable.

You make it look easy and we can’t tell you’re nervous at all.

I am actually more nervous right before I compete than actually being in the presence of the judges. I have to remind myself to keep my faith in God. And I usually pray before I am up there and remind myself to breathe. Once I am on the beam I can usually hear, because I have selective hearing, my teammates and family cheering me.

Your faith seems important to you.

Yes, very much. We are Christians and are true to family. We are so happy to be able to experience all of this especially because I am 16 years old. That I got to go the Olympics and represent Latina culture has been the high point of my life.

Who are your athletic role models?

Usain Bolt, Missy Franklin, and Michael Phelps. When I was younger Shawn Johnson helped inspire me to go far in the sport.

Did you have a chance to meet some of your idols in Rio?

I met Usain (Bolt) and Michael (Phelps) and it was very, very, very exciting.

Looks like you are living a dream?

Oh yeah I think so. (And she giggles.)

Wanda: We are very excited to be in this journey and hoping that we can inspire others.

Congratulations on your first endorsement deal.

Thanks. The future is really very exciting for me.

And you’re doing an online mama and daughter commercial, I hear.

Wanda: Estamos orgullosos (we're proud) with everything that Laurie has accomplished. To be part of this journey to share our stories, our family, our culture, and our Latino heritage--we are on top of the world.

I understand that you are a close-knit family.

Wanda: Oh yeah, we are a close knit Puerto Rican family. Nos gusta el arroz con gandules, pernil, estar en familia, el baile, and our faith.

But Laurie, you can’t eat all that delicious food all the time?

I can’t eat it all the time, rarely, but when I do, its really, really good.

Your brother Marcus posted on Instagram that when you get home you guys are going straight to Wawa. For what?

Yes, (she laughs.) Probably for hoagies and ice cream and other fattening stuff.

What do you most look forward to when you come home?

Being able to spend time with family and relax a bit.

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