Laurie Hernandez: ‘Sassy’ young gymnast embraces Olympic stage

Laurie Hernandez
Getty Images
0 Comments

Laurie Hernandez keeps insisting she’s too young to know better. That she’s so new to this whole Olympics thing, she doesn’t know she’s supposed to be scared.

“You just kind of have to act naive to it,” the 16-year-old said with a shrug. “It’s just another meet. The arena is just a little bigger than usual.”

The stakes, too. Yet the youngest member of the powerhouse U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team hardly seems intimidated. Hernandez is too busy putting on a show, her effortless charisma and “dare you to look away” performance during last week’s Olympic trials erased whatever doubt remained in national team coordinator Martha Karolyi‘s mind about Hernandez’s ability to handle the big stage.

If anything, Hernandez is trying to own it. Ask her what she considers her biggest talent and she doesn’t point to any particular physical attribute but something decidedly more abstract.

“I’m confident,” she said. “I’m a crowd pleaser.”

It shows, particularly when Hernandez’s floor music starts. What follows is 90 seconds of attitude and athleticism. Hernandez doesn’t dance so much as strut, every move joined by an electric smile that doesn’t seem plastered in place but an organic byproduct of the joy she’s feeling. She’s having a good time out there. And she wants you to notice.

Hernandez describes her gymnastics as “sassy” but that’s underplaying it. Her tumbling is on par with anyone on the planet not named Simone Biles — the three-time world all-around champion who is the heavy favorite to come back from Rio with a luggage full of gold medals — and her steady, detailed work on balance beam the result of thousands of hours spent with longtime coach Maggie Haney trying to get over a small bit of stage fright.

No, really.

Hernandez admits there was a time early on she was scared of the beam. When she hopped on she’d settle into a squat because she couldn’t summon the courage to stand. Haney didn’t baby Hernandez to get her going. If anything, Haney went the other way, putting Hernandez through countless “pressure sets” designed to force Hernandez into a choice: get mentally tough or find something else to do with your free time.

MORE: First Olympian born in 2000? It may be gymnast Lauren Hernandez

Sometimes Haney would play Hernandez and teammate Jazmyn Foberg against each other, the difficulty of Foberg’s next routine based on the quality of Hernandez’s. The worst for Hernandez, however, is when Haney would tell all the kids in the gym to stop working and gather around the beam, while her star student tried to hold it together in the stillness.

“I was like, ‘Why are you doing this to me? It’s so annoying, you’re really really making me anxious,'” said Hernandez, who easily posted the top score on beam at the trials. “But then I look back and I can only thank her for that because it’s made me so calm today.”

A place that slowly came into focus over the last four years as Hernandez learned to harness her considerable talents. She rose from 21st in junior nationals in 2012 to junior champion last summer despite wrist and knee injuries that sidelined her for most of 2014. When a knee sprain threatened to derail Hernandez’s momentum this year, Haney offered a very brief, very pointed pep talk.

“I looked at her, ‘It is time. Now,'” Haney said. “She snapped and went into kind of crazy … mode. Every practice, every time on the floor was important to her.”

The eye-opener came at the Pacific Rim Championships in April, when she came in third behind Biles and three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman. It wasn’t just the praise from Karolyi that she noticed — it was the way people seemed to respond to her.

“You hear cheering and clapping and you’re thinking ‘I don’t even know these people,'” she said. “It brings a lot of energy, a lot of positive energy.”

Energy that practically radiates off Hernandez, the youngest of Wanda and Marcus Hernandez‘s three children. A second-generation Puerto Rican, Hernandez is proud of her heritage and aware she’s suddenly become a role model, even if she doesn’t quite consider herself one.

“I think people are people,” she said. “If you want something, go get it. I don’t think it matters what race you are.”

Hernandez considers herself a gymnast above all else. Sure that smile makes it look easy, but it’s also hard earned from years and years of falling and picking herself back up. Don’t let her playful demeanor fool you; she may be the bubbliest workaholic around. She’s home-schooled and spends most days working out with Haney at one of the two gyms near her home in Old Bridge, New Jersey, about an hour south of New York City. Pressed if she has friends outside the gym, she laughs and says not really.

That’s changing by the day. Biles considers her “a little sister.” Twitter verified her account (@lzhernandez02) after the trials. The mayor of Old Bridge threw a party for her this week. Everyone is looking to come up with a good nickname. The leaders are “The Human Emoji” and “Baby Shakira.” She can’t help but laugh at the idea while simultaneously trying not to get ahead of herself.

As for college, she has verbally committed to competing at Florida whenever she’s out of high school (she still has at least two years left). She downplayed the idea of turning professional. Hernandez won’t decide until after Rio so there won’t be any distractions.

“It’s all happening really fast,” she said. “This is a really cool part of my life.”

One getting cooler by the day.

MORE: Gabby Douglas spent months on crutches after 2015 Worlds

Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever
Getty
0 Comments

Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
Getty
0 Comments

Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!