Before climbing onto the balance beam during the team competition in Rio in August, 16-year-old gymnast Laurie Hernandez whispered to herself, “I got this.” She proceeded to nail the routine, helping the U.S. seize gold.
That quote is now the title of her first book, which comes out Jan. 24 and explores the life of someone so expressive that she earned a spot in Olympic lore as “the human emoji.”
Since winning America’s heart, along with an individual silver medal in the balance beam, the native of New Brunswick, N.J., has reconnected with her Latino roots—her parents were born in Puerto Rico—on Dancing with the Stars and continued to show what can be achieved through talent, confidence and dedication.
On what role gymnastics plays in the latin-american community:
Growing up, there wasn’t an exact Hispanic role model that I had. I didn’t realize how big a difference I was making, going to the Olympics and being Hispanic, until I would be in an autograph session and parents would come up to me and say, “You know, our family is so proud of you, you’re really doing Hispanics proud.”
On her olympic experience:
My favorite part was seeing all the other countries and what sports they do. The Olympic Village was awesome because [my teammates and I] were able to see all these amazing athletes, like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. I mean, we would say to each other, “Oh, hey, look, it’s Michael Phelps just casually roaming around.” We met Usain Bolt in the cafeteria.
On how much passion and focus she had to put into her sport:
My whole life revolved around gymnastics because I loved it so much. I home-schooled because of it, I changed my eating habits. . . . My mom actually changed [our family’s] eating habits so we were all eating healthy together.
On how she would like to inspire young girls who look up to her:
I’m hoping that after you saw your 2016 Olympic gymnastics team, you noticed that we had African-American, Hispanic and white people. We had a diverse team, and it’s a beautiful thing. No matter what race or color you are, you can aspire to do something great.
On Who she looks up to:
Two people who really inspire me are my parents, Wanda and Anthony, just because they really made sure to keep up Hispanic culture in my family. Whenever this sport was getting too tough, my parents would say, “It’s all up to you. We support whatever your decision is.” They always encouraged me to keep going.