PERTH AMBOY, N.J. – Laurie Hernandez sees her job as an Olympic gymnast to inspire others.
“To make sure I’m able to leave a mark for this generation and for our kids, and show you don’t just get things handed down to you, you have to work hard for the things that you want,” said Hernandez, 16, of Old Bridge, N.J. “To make a mark on the world, you have to work very hard at that. So I’m doing my best to inspire little kids to start something new.”
Hernandez said she tries to inspire other kids to be confident, not cocky, and grateful for every moment and everyone in their life because it could all be taken away quickly.
And she urges high school students not to wait until college graduation to start their lives and determine their path and career but use college to help them get there.
“Be ambitious, keep an open mind, be positive and work hard,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez and her mother, Wanda Hernandez, a social worker at Robert N. Wilentz School in Perth Amboy, are among eight people to be honored May 6 at the Learning Empowerment Achievement Foundation (LEAF) gala. Ten students will receive scholarships.
Laurie Hernandez will receive a special award for her drive and teamwork, while her mother will receive an outstanding mentor award from LEAF, a nonprofit organization founded by Perth Amboy educator Senovia Robles that raises scholarship funds for needy students continuing their education after high school, especially adult high school students.
“I’m honored and humbled. I appreciate that someone has an eye for the effort being done to change it up with families, to change it up with the children, to recognize it takes a community to raise a child,” said Wanda Hernandez, who has mentored her children, students, faculty and the Perth Amboy community, in part through a parents college and bullying prevention program.
Laurie Hernandez’s life has been a whirlwind since winning gold and silver medals at the Summer Olympics and “Dancing With the Stars” with partner Val Chmerkovskiy.
Her plans including learning to drive on a car with “very good brakes,” returning to gymnastics after a break, and going to college.
“I’m leaning toward (studying) theater and arts because I want to become an actress,” said Hernandez, a high school junior. “Acting has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It was always a passion of mine.”
She met Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T from “Law & Order: SVU” on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show and they invited her to appear in an episode.
“I remember completely fangirling over that,” she said.
And another Olympics also may be in her future.
“Making sure I come back at a perfect time because coming back too late would mean I’m not prepared and coming back too early could mean I burn out,” she said. “So it’s making sure I have that right balance and momentum coming into 2020.
“If gymnastics comes back faster, as well or even better as I was doing before, I might postpone college by two years just in case I do have the opportunity to make 2020.”
Focus on inspiring
Hernandez comes from a home in which faith, family and education are valued.
Wanda Hernandez said she wakes up every day focused on inspiring.
“We value education but even more the character of our kids. We believe in family restoration,” said Wanda Hernandez, noting that Laurie has a close relationship with her older brother and sister. “It’s about love and support.”
Laurie Hernandez said she and her siblings learned from a early age to focus on finding a solution to their problems, which she believes is why they don’t fight. She will be the maid of honor in her sister’s upcoming wedding.
“When you wake up, if you’re not thankful, grateful for your faith, you didn’t get the fruits of your labor early in the morning and you didn’t help or be there for someone, then you didn’t do your job for the day,” said Wanda Hernandez. “So you pray that you are grateful, that you look always to inspire others.”
Laurie Hernandez said she has learned patience from her mother, respect from her father, to radiate positivity from her sister and curiosity and ambition from her brother.
Hernandez loves dancing, adding that one of her favorite dances on “Dancing With the Stars” was the Argentine Tango because it was so far out of her comfort zone.
“At my age, gymnastics was all I really knew so I had to go deeper and explore a different side that had to be very passionate and strong and love the dance. I had to act, in a way. I mean they gave me a bob,” she said with a laugh. “That was one of my favorites because it was so different.”
Hernandez said she also really enjoyed the fusion dance in which the Argentine Tango was mixed with the Fox Trot, adding that she had to remind herself she was playing a character in her dances, which made it easier to dance and act passionate.
Hernandez said she loved competing in the Olympics and “Dancing With the Stars.”
“But it’s really hard to compare the two just because they are both different. As a gymnast, you do the same routines over and over again for months at a time and the whole pressure comes from, OK, I have to do one more, can I do it? That’s exciting for me. For ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ it’s like week one you start off with a Cha Cha and this is different and the judges give you feedback and you go into the next week and already it’s a different style of dance, a different theme, a different routine, different setup, different shoes.
“There are so many things you have to adapt to every single week and every week the dance is different and so even though you get judges feedback, it doesn’t help you because you have to progress at a different style of dance. So they were both very fun to me.”
This season, Hernandez said she is rooting for Olympic teammate Simone Biles and her dancing partner Val Chmerkovskiy in “Dancing With the Stars.”
“He was my partner for the whole season and he did absolutely amazing. Without him, I wouldn’t be the dancer that I was and so I’m rooting for the both of them. They are both like family to me and everybody else of course ’cause I was able to go on tour with them and see not only were they pro dancers but they were people and became like family to me. So I’m rooting for all of them,” she said.
Despite her successes, Hernandez doesn’t consider herself a celebrity. When people says she’s a celebrity and famous, she says to herself, “No I’m not. I’m just Laurie.”
“Every time that they do that I have to make sure I say that. Doing that helps me make sure it doesn’t get to my head. I think the best thing for me because I’m traveling so much is coming home because it has so many beautiful childhood memories and it shows who I am and not to ever lose that. To be with my family and those who really humble me,” she said.
“My favorite thing about home is that nobody treats me like royalty. I have to help clean the house, I have to do dishes, take out the trash, they are not going to just let me sit around. I’m constantly being told you need to get your school work done. It humbles me and shows me not to take any of this for granted.”
The only drawback to her popularity is a desire to see girls be kinder on social media. While she’s doesn’t dwell on the comments made on social media, she knows others do.
“I feel everyone should be a lot kinder to each other. Stop commenting on anything negative and be nice and your life and others will be a lot better,” she said.