Laurie Hernandez: ‘Sassy’ young gymnast embraces Olympic stage

Laurie Hernandez
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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

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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