© Team Photo

By Nick McCarvel

ST. LOUIS – Lauren Hernandez has been here before. Only this time the Olympics are hanging in the balance.

It was four years ago that Hernandez, on her 12th birthday, competed in her first-ever U.S. nationals as a junior in Chaifetz Arena. Tuesday she arrived at the same place as a first-year senior – and Olympic hopeful.

“Coming in here this week, it’s deja vu but it’s real,” Hernandez told USA Gymnastics ahead of this week’s P&G Gymnastics Championships. “I feel really comfortable in St. Louis. That was an Olympic year and so is this.”

And this year the Olympics are a reality for Hernandez, who last year walked away from nationals as the junior champion. It was the crowning achievement for a kid who hadn’t thought about the Olympics whatsoever during her 2012 visit.

This time, it’s on her mind fully, though her approach is quite the opposite, something she’s honed the last couple of years at one high-stakes competition after another.

“The past couple of years has helped me create the mindset of, ‘Oh, it’s just another meet,'” said the New Jersey native, who goes by Laurie. “For Hartford, it was just another meet. As is nationals and trials. Or even the Olympics: ‘It’s just another meet.'”

It’s a mindset that Hernandez feels has helped her reach her peak. She no longer looks at the scoreboard or stresses herself to be overly concerned about what the judges have in store for her.

“If I can remember to stay in that mindset this weekend, I think that would keep me really calm and not have me sidetracked from what I’m in the now,” she said. “During competitions, I never really look at scores or placements. There is no reason for that because if you do your job, you do your job. As long as you know you did the routine that you wanted to do and you’re happy with yourself, that’s all that matters.”

“Laurie is a very good-looking gymnast,” said women’s national team coordinator Matha Karolyi. “I think she is artistic and does good technical work. She demonstrated pretty good consistency in the last year and presented herself pretty well in two major international competitions. She could be a very good component.”

Hernandez is as serious about her play as she is about her work. She laughs easily and is quick to smile. She jokes that – when asked what three items she’d take to a deserted island – she’d bring along her phone, a helicopter and its pilot.

“That’s cheating!” I tell her.

“No, it’s not,” she laughs, smitten. She does a cheesy ba-dum ching motion, striking an imaginary drum and playing off her joke. The sarcasm is well placed in a high-stress setting.

“I forget how young Laurie is because she’s so mature,” said Aly Raisman, who is vying for a second Olympic team at 22. “She really does not act like she just turned 16 at all. I think gymnastics forces you to grow up. She’s mature beyond her years … She’s such a great competitor. She proved that as a junior and she’s proving it as a senior.”

Part of that maturity comes from coach Maggie Haney, who she has been with since she was 5. Haney is the one that had Olympic hopes for Hernandez even as far back as 2012, knowing that – in watching the senior competition here that year – Laurie could be at that level one day, herself.

“In 2012, I didn’t even know I would be back the next year,” Hernandez said, laughing again. “I was just taking it day-by-day. I was only 12 so I didn’t understand podiums and big lights and everyone cheering for you. It all made me pretty nervous. Now, I’m used to it. Coming back as a senior, I’m excited to get out there. I’m absorbing all the podiums and the big lights.”

Hernandez has dreams of standing in the spotlight at the end of this weekend, as well as in San Jose in two weeks’ time at Olympic Trials. It was four years ago she remembers running around this arena, star struck.

“I remember looking up to Simone (Biles) that year,” she said. “I was backstage freaking out… Not even realizing who some of these girls were. It was funny.”

A few weeks later she and her teammates watched the Fierce Five capture Olympic gold at the London Games at their gym in New Jersey. They watched on a phone someone had propped against a mat, snacking on fortune cookies.

Wait… fortune cookies?

“Yes!” Hernandez said. “And one said, ‘Go for the gold!’ It was pretty surreal.”

This weekend there is a lot for Hernandez to show for. She has a new floor routine, is building on a new routine on uneven bars and is excited for what she sees as an ever-improving beam: “My beam is a lot more solid than it was before. I’m definitely excited to show that, as well.”

A bond with a coach that she’s had for over 10 years serves well at moments like this, as well.

“Mentally and physically we have been growing together,” Hernandez said of Haney. “There is some sort of bond that we have. We’re so close, so she knows me really well. She knows me inside and out, and I think that plays a really important role in my gymnastics. She knows when I’m tired, my limit, how and when to push me.”

But what drives Hernandez is a competitive fire that has been ingrained in her in a family of athletes, including a baseball-playing dad, a brother who ran track and a karate-kicking sister.

So competitive, in fact, that she hates to lose at anything – even a game of Monopoly.

“I’m pretty competitive,” she said. “Actually, I’m a sore loser. But I always pick the trophy as my piece.”

Which means she’s a winner, regardless of the game’s actual outcome. And one back in St. Louis with bigger aspirations four years on.