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Up Close with Olympic Gold Medalist Laurie Hernandez

With the 2016 Rio Olympics in the rear view, many athletes are quickly moving on to new pursuits. For some, that journey starts with a trip back to the gym so they can start prepping for the next competition. For others, like Olympic Gold Medalist – and NJ native – Laurie Hernandez, it means exciting new activities and challenges. Best of NJ had the opportunity to chat with Hernandez about what’s in store for her as 2016 winds down.

Hernandez, who won Gold in Rio in the Gymnastics Women’s Team All-Around and Silver for Women’s Beam, recently threw the ceremonial first pitch at the Mets game in a style worthy of the “Amazins.” Now, she’s gearing up to be a competitor in season 23 of Dancing with the Stars. From her humble beginnings growing up in Old Bridge, NJ, to her major championship debut as the 2015 International Japan Meet All-Around Champion, to Olympic Gold Medalist, Hernandez is already a big star at just 16-years-old. Here is what the talented athlete had to say during our brief discussion:

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Best of NJ: You recently threw the first pitch at the Mets game and are now preparing to compete on Dancing with the Stars. What other upcoming events will you be a part of for the rest of this year?

Laurie Hernandez: For the rest of this year, in addition to Dancing with the Stars, I’ll also be doing the Kellog’s Tour of Gymnastics [Champions]. That runs from September to November.
BONJ: You’ve spoken before about techniques you use to stay calm or psyche yourself up right before a competition. But when you’re feeling nervous or antsy the night before a big event – whether it’s the Olympics or another competition – what’s your go-to meal or activity to cheer you up and get into a positive head-space?
Hernandez: There’s not really one song in particular, but I like to listen to music whenever I’m feeling nervous or anxious before a competition. I always pray beforehand too, and I noticed that slows my heart rate and keeps me calm.

BONJ: What advice would you give to young athletes interested in not only gymnastics, but athletic pursuits in general, specifically when it comes to both time and stress management?

Hernandez: Make sure you truly love the sport and are having fun! Never stop on a bad day. There are times when other girls at the gym pick stuff up quicker than I do. But you just have to keep working at it.

Laurie Hernandez at Citi Field
Laurie Hernandez at Citi Field

BONJ: Is there anything your parents or coaches do in situations like that, to make you feel better?

Hernandez: The thing that I think helps the most is that, when I come home from a practice or competition, we don’t talk about gymnastics. As a family, we just talk about normal stuff, and that really helps.

BONJ: You’re obviously an incredibly talented gymnast, but what is one activity you wish you were better at? It doesn’t have to be related to sports.

Hernandez: I’d like to get better at braiding hair. I think if I practiced enough I could do it. I’d also like to be really good at doing makeup. I like to paint my nails, too. So, girly things (laughs), I like that stuff.

BONJ: The NBC Olympics website mentions that you go by the nickname Laurie because your gym had a few other girls named Lauren. What other pet names do your friends or fellow athletes have for you, and is there a silly/funny story behind them?

Hernandez: A lot of people call me the “Human Emoji” because I am always making facial expressions and “Baby Shakira” because I love to dance! One of the younger sisters of someone I train with calls me “Lo-lo” because she has a hard time saying Laurie, and that kinda stuck. My sister also calls me “monkey,” of course because of gymnastics.

BONJ: Do you have a favorite place you like to visit when you come home to New Jersey? Perhaps a place that has special meaning to you?

Hernandez: I wouldn’t say that I have a special place when I come home, other than hanging out with my friends and family pretty much anywhere.

Laurie Hernandez on "Good Morning America discussing season 23 of "Dancing with the Stars"
Laurie Hernandez on “Good Morning America” discussing “Dancing with the Stars”

BONJ: You’ve been homeschooled since the third grade. What are your favorite, and least favorite, subjects to study?

Hernandez: I used to not like history much when I was younger, but now it’s probably my favorite subject. As for my least favorite, I would have to say math. Not so much because I dislike it, but it can get really complicated.

BONJ: Since I’m doing this interview on behalf of Best of NJ, I have to ask: What is your favorite thing about New Jersey?

Hernandez: Well, we do have Six Flags… (laughs) I really like roller coasters, so that’s always something I like to do. When I have time.

BONJ: I like to have a little fun with my last question during interviews. So let me ask: If you could have any exotic animal as a pet, which would you choose? (My personal pick would be a pair of penguins.)

Hernandez: Hmm, let me think. Penguins are cute! I would say, do you know those monkeys that are really small? I think they’re called pygmy marmosets. The ones that are also called finger monkeys. They’re adorable! I would want to have one of those.

To stay in the loop about everything “The Human Emoji” is up to, follow Laurie Hernandez on Twitter @lzhernandez02. Be sure to catch her live during the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which runs from Sept. 15 until Nov. 13. To watch her on TV every week, Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays at 8:00 pm EST, with season 23 premiering on Sept. 12.

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