TODAY Style has announced its inaugural list of our TODAY Style Heroes – the 40 people who inspired us in 2016 and Laurie is on if! From celebrities to designers, fashion icons, Olympians and athletes, this list honors those who emulate TODAY Style’s spirit: Wear what you want, and love what you see in the mirror.
Johnson, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, spoke to a packed crowd, highlighting her experiences with success and failure as an olympic athlete. At 16, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, as well as being team captain and the favorite to win gold in the main events. When she ended up taking home silver in three of her four events, earning gold only in the balance beam, Johnson said that many people behaved as though she had failed.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘If you can’t win the gold medal, at least go out there and show them that you deserved it,’” Johnson said.
She settled around the theme of coming to terms with accomplishments and failures and reconciling them with the perception the broader public may have of them. Johnson’s advice to the audience was to remain passionate about whatever subject they decide to take on and not let other’s perceptions come to be what defines them.
“I was trying to live up to an image and expectations that people put on me,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t up until I was 19, 20, 21 that I started to figure out, I don’t care what you have to offer or what you want me to be, I’m going to be who I want and I’m going to do the things I want because that is what will make me most proud.”
Johnson also discussed her experiences in the pop culture spotlight as a contestant in shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Apprentice,” the latter being a show hosted by current Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. While she refrained from making any political commentary regarding her position on Trump, she did say that her experiences with him were always pleasant.
“I had leading up to being on ‘The Apprentice’ some of the rumors surrounding [Trump],” Johnson said. “I got to see him interacting with his family, and he was always incredibly nice and polite to me.”
NC State students attending the event seemed enthusiastic about Johnson’s visit, as many recognized her from her from both her time as an Olympian and a reality TV star. Caroline Spencer, a freshman majoring in exploratory studies, said that she was excited to see Johnson speak.
“I loved watching her in the Olympics; I’m a big fan,” Spencer said.
James Vislocky, a senior studying paper science and engineering, said that while he was in attendance to earn points for his fraternity at homecoming, he was excited to see the former gymnast.
“Everything she’s done has been impressive,” Vislocky said.
After her speech ended, Johnson took the time to field questions from the audience. Questions ranged from people who said they inspired her and wanted to know her secrets to success, to members asking the happily married former gymnast to be their date to formal.
Johnson’s main message to the crowd was to be proud of each of their accomplishments, saying that the moment that many would point to as a failure in her career was one of her proudest moments.
“If I had to turn in one of my medals, I would give up the gold before I gave up that silver,” Johnson said.
Nastia Liukin is a five-time Olympic gymnastics medalist, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, and was named 2008 athlete of the year by multiple organizations. But, Oct. 12 at the Weasler Auditorium, she told students the most important event in her life was her career-ending fall at the 2012 Olympic trials.
Liukin spoke about her early years as a gymnast and her struggles with self-confidence leading up to her 2008 Olympic debut in Beijing. Through all of her triumphs and setbacks, Liukin says her biggest takeaway was to never quit on a bad day.
“I think it goes back to your dreams, passions and goals,” she said. “When you truly love something, you have to realize that most of the time the willingness to work hard, to work through those tough moments and achieve your dreams is far stronger than just wanting to give it all up.”
After her success at the Beijing Olympic games, Liukin decided she wanted to try for one more Olympics. She went back to training seven hours a day, six days a week, working harder than she ever had. She made it all the way to the Olympic trials, and then fell off the uneven bars during a routine.
“I was so mortified, I wanted to crawl under a rock,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to fall; I was supposed to make my second Olympic team. I wasn’t supposed to disappoint people, I was supposed to make my country and so many other people proud, but I was doing the exact opposite.”
Liukin’s father, who was also her coach, said she could walk off, but Liukin decided to finish the routine.
“I chalked back up and I finished that bar routine, and I landed on my feet on the dismount,” Liukin said. “And for the first time in my entire career I had a standing ovation. Twenty thousand people were on their feet for the worst bar routine of my entire life. And in that moment I realized that life isn’t always about winning gold medals. It’s not about ending up on top. For so many years I had thought that people would only love me, support me, or cheer me on if I had a gold medal or if I finished in first place. In that moment I realized that’s not true. People are still going to love and support you no matter what.”
Liukin’s speech also touched on self-doubt, and offered advice to students for gaining back their confidence and motivation.
“There are people out there who are going to have negative comments,” she said. “But you can’t let those people affect you. You have to remember how strong you are. Realize that your dreams and your goals are going to motivate you more than their negativity.”
Erin Zinkula, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences and member of Marquette Crew, said Liukin’s advice about perseverance resonated with her.
“She really nailed it on the advice about not giving up,” Zinkula said. “Even on the bad days, it’s really worth fighting for and putting in the effort.”
Liukin no longer competes in professional gymnastics, but she hasn’t strayed far from the sport. She is currently a broadcaster at NBC, and was a commentator at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Madison Hicks, a freshman in the College of Communication, was moved by Liukin’s speech.
“I am always inspired by women’s accomplishments,” she said. “(Liukin) does work for young women with her foundation, and I’m very inspired by that, as well as by the adversity she faced and her focus on education. That’s huge to me because I never would have thought that she would come here after winning a gold medal and tell us how important education is.”
In 2009, Liukin established the Nastia Liukin Fund in conjunction with USA Gymnastics. Its mission is to encourage young people to live healthy and active lives. The organization partners with athletic clubs around the U.S. and provides financial aid to young athletes.
Liukin stressed the importance of education and finishing school, and left the audience with some final words of advice.
“What you guys are doing here…you’re setting up your future,” she said. “I hope that you all create memories that are going to last a lifetime.”
To determine TIME’s annual list, we consider accolades across numerous fields, global impact through social media and overall ability to drive news. In the past, we’ve recognized everyone from singer Lorde to golf champion Lydia Ko to political activist Joshua Wong.
Laurie Hernandez, 16
Growing up, Hernandez rarely saw Latina girls like her at the gym, tearing down the vault run or tackling the balance beam. “There weren’t a lot of Hispanic role models,” she recalls, “especially in gymnatics.” Still, she didn’t think much of it—until she became one. Three months after winning Olympic gold alongside her Final Five teammates (and an individual silver), Hernandez is emerging as a star in her own right, signing an endorsement deal with Crest andcrushing competitors on ABC’sDancing with the Stars. But the most meaningful reward, she says, comes during meet-and-greets with fans, particularly from Hispanic families. “They say, You made Latinas proud! and that hits me hard,” she says. “It helps me realize that I’ve done something bigger than just gymnastics.” —Alice Park
Last week on Dancing With The Stars, gymnast Laurie Hernandez and partner Val Chmerkovskiy had a rude awakening: They earned a score of just 25 for their performance, going from a perfect score the week prior to the second lowest score in the group. Ouch. It came as a shock to the seemingly unstoppable pair, but it motivated them to absolutely nail last night’s performance. The dance at hand: salsa. In rehearsals, Hernandez—a second-generation Puerto Rican—said she hoped her heritage could help her out this week, particularly with all the sexy “hip action” that she couldn’t seem to master.When Hernandez isn’t filming the show on Mondays and Tuesdays, she’s traveling the country with the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions—so it’s not like she’s busy or anything! Luckily, she has fellow gymnasts and former DWTS competitors Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson on tour with her, in case she needs advice. “I can’t shake my hips in front of Val because he’s a guy!” Hernandez told the gymnasts. Johnson’s words of wisdom to Hernandez for the salsa routine: “This is the time to have fun, learn a new thing, and prove to yourself that you can be more than just a gymnast.” No pressure, right?
Last night, the pair completely wowed when they took to the DWTS stage. Hernandez rocked a sassy fringe two-piece outfit, and she owned all the “hip action” and sexy steps in the routine. The best part: She looked like she was having the time of her life while performing. Guest judge Pitbull (yes, Mr. Worldwide) said the duo looked “amazing” on the dance floor. Judge Julianne Hough called Hernandez “fire,” and Bruno Tonioli called her a “little chicky salsa devil” (I think that’s a good thing?). Their score for the night: a whopping 37. The couple was safe from elimination, and contestant Amber Rose was sadly sent home.
Laurie, keep on owning that dance floor!