Amidst whirlwind, Hernandez still looks to Tokyo 2020
posted on 03/04/2017

© John Cheng

By Lynn Rutherford

Ask Laurie Hernandez what she’s been up to the last few months, and it’s soon clear it would have been far easier to ask the Rio “Final Five” gold medalist what she hasn’t done.

The post-Rio Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions. A star-turn winning ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, followed by a 53-city bus tour. The publication of an inspirational memoir, I Got This: To Gold and Beyond.

In between, there are appearances, well, everywhere, from talk shows – she’s one of Ellen DeGeneres’ favorite guests – to the Macy’s Day Parade, to gymnastics clubs around the U.S.

“Managing time for everything is really, really hard,” the 16-year-old said with her characteristic laugh. “I think I’m actually doing a book signing tonight at Rutgers University, and we have many more book signings to come. We’re still figuring out dates and places for them.”

Hernandez, who hails from nearby New Brunswick, N.J., did carve out time to travel to Newark and watch the AT&T American Cup on Saturday, arriving early to catch up with old friends and, of course, do a few interviews.

“I’m looking forward to just being in the presence of gymnasts,” she said. “Aside from the Kellogg’s tour, I haven’t really been in the gym, because I was doing DWTS and then the dancing tour. It’s going to be nice being in this environment again. I’m just excited to see what’s going on.”

Among those she’ll watch is Riley McCusker, the up-and-comer she trained side-by-side with at MG Elite in Brielle, N.J., an hour’s drive from Prudential Center.

“I definitely wished her good luck,” Hernandez said. “Riley is such a unique gymnast, I hope she really gets out there and shows that here.”

Hernandez’s success is no shock to Maggie Haney, who coaches both gymnasts.

“(Laurie) is a very lovable kid, always friendly, always smiling,” Haney said. “I’m not surprised she’s conquering the world now.”

The coach, who’s renowned for creating the sassy floor routine that helped make Hernandez a household name after Rio, also credits her pupil’s work ethic.

“We had to be at the gym by 8:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5 p.m.,” Haney said. “That is all she knows, how to work hard, so it makes sense she would continue that in whatever comes next.”

And what is next? Hernandez is anxious to try her hand at acting, and is talking to producers of one of her favorite shows, Law and Order: SVU, about a possible guest spot. She just filmed an upcoming segment for Sesame Street.

“I’d love to go down that path,” she said. “Seeing see so many actors and actresses play their roles in an action film, a romantic comedy, whatever it is, they all look natural and amazing. It’s something I would like to try in the future.”

As a proud Puerto Rican – her grandparents are from the island -- she’s looking forward to doing more outreach with the Hispanic community, including an upcoming conference. She is the first U.S.-born Hispanic athlete to make the U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympic team since Tracee Talavera at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“It’s definitely been a minute since there’s been a very well-known name (gymnast) that’s been Hispanic, and growing up, I didn’t see too many of them,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s really cool to do meet-and-greets and have Hispanic parents come up and say, ‘My daughter saw you at Olympics and now she’s started gymnastics because of you.’ That’s so inspiring.”

Sheryl Shade, the sports agent who manages Hernandez’s career, thinks the sky is the limit for her effervescent teenaged client.

“She’s doing a bit more for her sponsors, a lot with Procter and Gamble right now,” Shade said. “She and her mother, Wanda, are both going to be in a very cute Febreze spot. A lot of television opportunities have come her way; these things have been filmed and booked, and you’ll see them soon.”

Like Haney, Shade – who has also guided the professional careers of Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and many other Olympians – attributes Hernandez’s appeal to a combination of appealing personality and fierce work ethic.

“She’s authentic. She’s not trying to be anyone but herself. Her background and her family created a very grounded young lady,” Shade said. “Yesterday, we did a big shoot and I said, ‘Here comes the 16-year-old out in you’ and she said, ‘Sixteen? I’m six.’ She loves playing; she hasn’t lost any of that. Even after Rio and all the amazing things she’s done, every single opportunity still excites her.”

For gymnastics’ fans, of course, the big question is: Will Hernandez return to elite competition? Shade says her client will resume training in the gym this summer, with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The gymnast herself didn’t give a timeline, but certainly hasn’t ruled out trying for a second Olympic team.

“It would be nice compete at 2020,” Hernandez said. “I had a really nice experience 2016. The girls were so sweet, and I got to meet athletes from different cultures. But at the same time, I want to take a little break. This last year has been such a whirlwind.”

There’s another, more immediate item on the agenda. Hernandez – about to complete her junior year of high school studies -- has yet to get her driver’s license.

“I haven’t been home (enough), I haven’t been able,” she moaned. “I’m home every few days. My mom has been traveling with me, she can vouch for that. I’m running out of time to get that license.”