Even at 16, Laurie Hernandez’s professional accomplishments are a lot to live up to. She’s an Olympic gold and silver-winning gymnast, the youngest-ever winner of “Dancing With The Stars”’ mirror ball trophy, and now a New York Times best-selling author.
But on the phone, the New Jersey native, who comes to town Friday for the Palm Beach Book Festival to promote her memoir “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is a completely disarming and relatively normal teenager, whose excitement to be on the current cultural landscape is more about national and personal pride than preening.
“It was really special, honestly,” Hernandez says of being an Olympian. “There’s a little American flag embroidered on your leotard, so it’s important to see everyone cheering.”
Hernandez is the youngest American female gymnast to win an individual Olympic medal in more than 20 years (the most recent before her was 15-year-old Shannon Miller in 1992). She says she wanted to write a book because “I just wanted to share my story and share how I worked really hard to get where I am. I had some rough spots, but I was able to push forward and achieve my dream.”
Obviously, writing a book isn’t quite as much work as a lifetime of grueling physical training, but it wasn’t easy. In fact, “it was pretty hard!” Hernandez admits. “But I had the help of my mom, and all of my memories were in place. A lot of it I just remembered by heart, and the rest, I was constantly writing things down in competition.”
She says that her book, as well as her career, has been a family affair. Her parents, Anthony and Wanda, entered Laurie, the youngest of their three kids, in gymnastics when she was 6 at her request, after seeing then-Olympian Shawn Johnson on TV.
“I told my mom I had seen something that I thought was so powerful. She had such control. I was in awe of her. I pointed at her and said, ‘I want to be just like her,’” Hernandez says. “So they put me right in. That (choice) has been the backbone of everything I’ve done. It would be impossible to have done this without my family. This can be a rough sport.”
In the book, she writes about some of that roughness, including an incident in 2014 in which she dislocated her kneecap and fractured her wrist. Being protective parents, Hernandez says that they “asked me ‘Is this still something you want?’ I knew I wanted to do it, so I answered ‘Yes.’ They supported me whether I wanted to do it or not. It was my mother’s thought to bring me to the doctors, because I didn’t want to stop, and she said ‘No, honey, you really need to check that out.’ It was their job to keep me safe, and support me. I’m grateful.”
Gymnastics wasn’t her first sport — she writes in her memoir that her mother had “always wanted a karate kid,” but that wasn’t to be Laurie’s path. When she was tiny, “I started out doing ballet, but it was a little too serious for my age. Also, I realize they only had sugar cookies at the end of the workouts,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think I was ready for it.”
Still, she was able to use some of her dance training for what was to be her true career path as a gymnast. Much later, she got to meet Johnson, the woman who inspired her, and who is also a “DWTS” champion. “I still fangurl when I talk to her. She sparked that fire in me.”
Reaching the heights that Johnson, Hernandez, her teammate and current “DWTS” contestant Simone Biles and others have reached takes not only physical and mental dedication, but an incredible commitment of time and money from the athlete and their entire family. In her book, Hernandez emphasizes that although her childhood was highly focused, it was as normal as possible, something her parents made sure of.
“This was a struggle for my parents, making sure I still had a fun, playful childhood. They were stuck in some moments whether or not to support this thing that I was really passionate about, like ‘Do we really trust her?’ I was really young at the time,” she says. “But they really trusted me that I wanted what I did. I can’t thank them enough.”
There are times, however, that this passion took its toll, as with her injuries, or in an incident she describes in her book as “a breakdown,” when she blurts out in front of friends that she wasn’t sure her body would hold up with all the training. Including that incident, Hernandez says, was about showing fans “that I wasn’t just into gymnastics to get into the Olympics. I knew it wasn’t going to be all perfect, that it wouldn’t be easy. It’s more of a job than some fun, playful hobby. So it was important for me to show that every so often, you break down and evaluate why you started.”
She says she gets a reminder of that every time she meets little girls “who tell me ‘We started gymnastics because of you!’ That brings me back to that little girl watching gymnastics on TV. I think maybe I’m talking to the future generation of Olympians!”
PALM BEACH BOOK FESTIVAL
What: Laurie Hernandez on her memoir “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond”
When: 3-4 p.m. Friday
Where: Palm Beach Atlantic University, Lassiter Student Center, 900 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
For more information: PalmBeachBookFestival.com.
* Admission includes entrance to the 2 p.m. Friday panel discussion (same location) with David Denby, author of “Lit Up,” and Ed Boland, author of “The Battle for Room 314.”