The U.S. gymnast on the verge of making history at the Olympic Trials

Lauren Hernandez
Lauren Hernandez (AP Photo)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – After it was over, after she had whipped the crowd into a frenzy with her floor routine and deftly saved herself from disaster on the beam, a reporter walked up to Laurie Hernandez and showed her a piece of paper.

“Oh,” she said, eyes widening. “Oh wow. OK.”

She looked again.

The piece of paper had the standings after the first night of the U.S. Olympic Trials for women’s gymnastics here, and Hernandez was in second place, within a point of three-time world champion Simone Biles.

She had no idea how well she had done.

“That’s pretty cool,” she beamed.

The names you know took their turns here at SAP Center on Friday – Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas – but it was Hernandez, nicknamed “The Human Emoji” for her vivid expressions, who took a star turn. She is trying to become the first American gymnast of Hispanic descent to make the Olympics since 1984, and that dream became ever so close to reality in front of a captivated arena of noisy fans.

“Tonight was very important for her,” said Shawn Johnson, who has become a mentor to Hernandez. “She was looking for a perfect meet and she gave it.”

There were some wobbles – one on uneven bars and one on the beam, to be exact. Her knees almost gave way on one landing, saved by a nifty swipe of her left leg. But her floor routine was arguably the moment of the night, even with Biles displaying her usual otherworldly leaps.

On an evening when the raucous crowd seemed to cause anxiety for everyone, Hernandez gave the fans’ energy right back.

“I love this floor routine,” she said. “It goes with my personality.”

Her coach, Maggie Haney, calls that personality “cool, hyper, happy, fun-loving.” Hernandez is a New Jersey native, originally from New Brunswick and now living in Old Bridge. She joined up with Haney when she was five years old, and the two have been together ever since, cultivating a close relationship that combines choreography and coaching.

Hernandez already had a gift for the sport, helped along by her dancing ability. She started ballet at age 3.

“My sister saw her and thought she was so cute,” Haney said.

Hernandez is a second-generation Puerto Rican and when asked about the possibility of making history for her heritage at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, she said, “I think it’s beautiful.” But the charisma is tempered by gravity; her dad is a court clerk and her mom is a social worker who helps teenagers, so there is not a sense of entitlement.

Johnson said when she met Hernandez, “I just fell in love with her,” and the ensuing mentorship has been important for not only the gymnast but Haney as well. Neither of them has been to the Olympics.

“She’s my first elite, my first national team member, my first everything,” Haney said.

Will she make it? It sure seems like it, as national team coordinator Martha Karolyi indicated not much had changed on Friday in her sense of who belonged and who didn’t. And while the intense spotlight of the moment bothered nearly all the gymnasts on Friday – Gabby Douglas idled in seventh place due to a fall on the balance beam – Hernandez showed she’s ready for the pressure, even at age 16.

“It’s all in your mind,” she said. “Even if you feel nervous, you can tell yourself, ‘I can feel calm, I can relax.’ ”

Hernandez can’t relax quite yet, but the potential for something special is there. Johnson thinks she has a puncher’s chance at the medal stand.

“I’m gonna go for the same thing on Sunday,” Hernandez said. “Go for perfection.”

If she makes it, you’ll see the Human Emoji with a smile that might just become iconic in the years to come.