In Olympic debut, Latina gymnast Laurie Hernandez becomes Team USA superstar

A year ago, Laurie Hernandez was virtually unknown. Today, she’s shining bright at the 2016 Rio Olympics competing for Team USA.

The 16-year-old of Puerto Rican descent is playing a key role in leading the team closer to the dream of repeating the 2012 gold medal.

On Sunday night, she scored 14.800 in the all-around (third among U.S. women), 15.200 in the vault (third) and 15.366 on the balance beam (second).

The 5-foot Hernandez is one of a very small number of U.S.-born Hispanics to make the USA Olympics gymnastics team, and the first in 12 years. Tracee Talavera, who is of Mexican-American descent, competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and Cuban American Annia Hatch competed in 2004.

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While Hernandez may be young and known by nicknames like “The Human Emoji” and “Baby Shakira,” she understands the weight of her accomplishment and what it means for U.S. Hispanics, and more specifically, Puerto Ricans.

“I am so proud of my heritage,” she told Fox News Latino recently. “I think it’s amazing that I can just go out there and be myself and the fact that I’m carrying Puerto Rico on my back a little bit, I think that’s an honor.”

Laurie at a Glance

Name: Laurie Hernandez
Age: 16
Discipline: Artistic Gymnastics
Event: Team
Begins competition: Qualifying round, Sun. 8/7, 4:30 p.m. EDT

Hernandez is a second-generation Latino, hailing from Old Bridge, NJ. Since she was a little girl, she’s had a keen focus on becoming an accomplished gymnast. Although she’s been described as an overnight sensation, her coach Maggie Haney, who has worked with Hernandez since she was 5 years old, saw the star power in her early on.

“Around 9, I realized she was pretty good, and around 12 I realized she was really good,” Haney told a group of reporters. “Last year, when she became the Junior National Champion, I realized she was on track for reaching this goal this year.”

Hernandez celebrated her 16th birthday on June 9, just in time to become age-eligible to compete in the Rio Games. By early July, she made the Olympics team and became one of the youngest athletes representing the U.S.

Her initial reaction was, “Oh my God! This is actually happening!”

It’s a first for Haney too, as she hadn’t coached an elite gymnast before working with Hernandez. She described the road to Rio de Janeiro as a “whirlwind” and something “no one can really prepare you for.”

The Jersey girl quickly became a hometown hero and her welcome was something neither she nor Coach Haney could have expected.

“When she got (to practice the day after making the team) all the girls were lined up with glitter all the way up the walkway in,” Haney recalled. “There was a big Olympics banner hanging saying ‘Congratulations, Laurie!’ and the girls basically all threw glitter down her throat and up her nose. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen, but that’s what happened.”

Haney added, “People were ordering edible arrangements and balloons were coming in. People that didn’t care about her the week before were suddenly like, ‘There she is! There she is!’ So it was a little bit distracting.”

Through temporary setbacks due to injuries in 2012 and 2014, Hernandez has proven her resiliency time and time again. Now she is in Rio competing alongside Olympic gymnast greats such as Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman.

While Hernandez is an all-around Olympic star, she does have her routine preferences.

“I love competing floor just because the energy of the crowd is really nice and I could really show my personality when I’m out there,” she said. “Beam, I feel so comfortable when I’m up there so it’s kinda like ‘boomp’ and it’s done. We’ve been working a lot on bars because I just want to go out there and show that while I’ve made a few mistakes that suddenly bars is not something I’m good at.”

While the pressures of competing at the Olympics could weigh heavily on anyone, Hernandez is still just a teenage girl from New Jersey with big dreams.

“Before a meet I usually listen to EDM (electric dance music) or rap music like Drake,” she said about her musical choices when getting pumped up for competition.

Besides her flawless twirls and flips and kicks, Hernandez also has a newfound public voice and encourages other young people to look to a brighter future.

“It’s definitely rough with everything that’s going on but I’m hoping at the Olympics, with all the countries and athletes coming together, we can kind of lift up everyone’s spirits a little bit,” she said. “I’m hoping it will be a happy time.”