INDIANAPOLIS — Maggie Haney was driving her junior gymnastics pupil Lauren Hernandez to or from practice in New Jersey last week when Hernandez piped up from a passenger seat.
“Today is August 5th,” Hernandez said.
“Yeah, why?” Haney responded.
“Rio is one year from today,” Hernandez said.
“How do you know that?” Haney said.
“Why wouldn’t I know that?” Hernandez said.
Early Saturday afternoon, five hours before Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman were to perform in the senior P&G Championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, there was Hernandez on top of the podium.
Hernandez won the U.S. junior all-around title, by one tenth of a point over teammate Jazmyn Foberg, and that is very notable in Olympic terms.
Each of the last nine U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics teams, starting with Moscow 1980 (boycotted but a team was still named) has included at least one athlete who turned 16 years old or younger in the Olympic year.
All of the women competing in the senior competition Saturday night — Biles, Douglas, Raisman and others — are past that threshold.
Hernandez was born June 9, 2000. She will move into the senior, Olympic-eligible division in 2016, the Olympic year. She could be among the group of athletes to be the first Olympians born in the 2000s.
And, judging by that car conversation, she is confident she can be one of the five U.S. women’s gymnasts going to Rio, on one of the hardest Olympic teams to make in any sport in any country.
“It will be a little bit of a challenge just to be a senior for the Olympic year,” said Hernandez, who also goes by Laurie because there were other Laurens at the gym she first joined around age 5. “I’m looking forward to challenges. I’m ready.
“I’m not really looking at just making it [on the Olympic team]. I’m looking at progressing my skills, cleaning up all the execution and just working every day and inching closer and closer, and I know that I will get there if I put my mind to it.”
Hernandez has a ballet background, which explains why her favorite event is floor exercise.
“It’s very sassy,” said Hernandez, who performed her best on uneven bars over two days of competition this week, with an all-around average that would have ranked third in the senior division’s first night of competition in Indianapolis, ahead of Douglas.
Hernandez had to be bribed with sugar cookies to go to ballet class starting at age 3, but the rush eventually wore off and she made the switch to gymnastics.
Hernandez began training under Haney since 5 or 6, competing at 7 and home-schooling in third grade.
She’s also dislocated her right kneecap and tore the patella tendon, fractured her left elbow and right wrist (twice on the wrist) and slammed four bottom teeth against one of the uneven bars, keeping her from eating solid food for a month, before she had braces.
“I am glad that happened,” Hernandez said of the most serious, the knee injury, which happened on a training camp vault and required surgery last year. “It feels better than ever.”
In 2013, Hernandez placed second in the P&G Championships junior division all-around two months after she turned 13.
The winner, Bailie Key, is 15 months older than Hernandez. This year, Key, now a senior gymnast, was second to Biles (and ahead of Douglas and Raisman in their comeback meet) at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy on March 28.
Hernandez apparently isn’t far behind. She swept the Jesolo Trophy, Secret Classic (on July 25) and P&G Championships junior all-around titles this year and finished second to Biles twice in closed-door camp competitions combining the junior and senior team members, Haney said.
“Second to Simone is like first,” said Haney, who in her career recorded NC State’s first perfect-10 score while on the team from 1997-00.
U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, part of the selection committee for Olympic and Worlds teams, was asked if Hernandez could make the 2016 Olympic team.
“That is a possibility,” Karolyi said Wednesday. “I think it will be a strong competition next year. We have a few juniors who will be breaking in.”
The stellar 2013 meant Hernandez was put on a list of elite gymnasts that were subject to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug testing. Testers showed up at her gym for the first time in the beginning of 2014, when she was 13 years old.
“We were on [balance] beam, and two ladies walked in,” Hernandez said. “They were like, oh, we’re from USADA. You need to get drug tested. I just went to the bathroom five minutes before they got there. So it took me like two hours to actually give them the drug test. By that time, practice was basically over.”
There’s reason to believe it will be harder for the first-year seniors in 2016 than it was in 2012, when Kyla Ross made the first-year senior jump to the Olympic team that Hernandez hopes to replicate.
The comebacks of Douglas and Raisman look stronger than the failed comebacks of 2008 Olympic team members four years ago.
And Hernandez is coming back herself from not competing at all in 2014 due to the wrist and knee injuries. She shed tears watching last year’s P&G Championships on an Internet stream from New Jersey, crying less out of happiness for her teammate Foberg winning than out of missing her chance at medals.
Five of them clanked around Hernandez’s neck as she spoke with reporters following her victory Saturday afternoon. She needed to propel herself with her arms on to a competition platform not quite three feet off the ground to sit chest level with the media.
“I’m 4-11 now,” she said, noting a three- to four-inch growth over the last three years.
Haney knows that Hernandez’s prime may pass before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, when she’ll be 20. All five members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team were teenagers.
“Her time is now,” Haney said in a 2013 podcast. “We don’t have a five-year plan or a six-year plan anymore. We’re down to a three-year plan at this point.”
Now, it’s less than one year.
“Kyla wasn’t a senior until , and look where she ended up,” Haney said Saturday. “I hope the seniors are a little worried about them [Hernandez and Foberg] next year.”
Larry Bird, Kim Zmeskal remember Olympic bus meeting in Barcelona