We caught up with Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez at the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Olympic trials in July—back before she even knew whether she was Rio-bound, let alone an Olympic gold medalist! Even before the "Final Five" team was selected, it was clear that these ladies were gunning for gold; Simone had already blown up the internet with her flawless floor routine, and Gabby and Aly are faves from London's 2012 "Fab Five."
But what about newbie Laurie Hernandez? She finished in the second spot at the Olympic trials, just two points behind Biles (who's recently been called the best U.S. gymnast ever). Solidifying her spot on the Final Five had a lot to do with her power on the balance beam, and she has a shot at taking home another gold in the event on Monday. But her bubbly attitude, bright eyes, and her girl-next-door charm have already won America's hearts. Here, all the reasons we (and everyone else watching the gymnastics events in Rio) have totally fallen for Laurie's huge talent and even bigger smile.
1. She gave the wink to end all winks.
Most gymnasts give the judges a quick smile to signify the start of their routine, but that would be just too basic for Laurie Hernandez. To kick off an incredible floor routine during the team finals, the 16-year old showed off her irresistible spunk by winking at the judges before striking her pose.
Even with Team USA holding tight to their significant lead at that point in the competition, Laurie wasn't going to sit back and coast through her routine. Nope, she left that enormous gap between gold and silver right where it was, but she was also going to have fun doing it.
2. It's her first year in the big leagues—and she's already a pro.
At only 16 years old, it's Laurie's first year competing at the senior level (which is why you haven't yet seen her at the World Championships up gainst Simone). To make the Olympic team during her senior debut is pretty darn impressive.
"As a gymnast, when you go from Junior to Senior it's a pretty big deal," says Hernandez. "Most people, when they go to the Olympics, I'm sure they've been a senior for at least a year to get that experience, but I just turned senior this year, so everything is a bit bigger for me this year, and I'm excited."
3. She has crazy respect for her teammates (and they're basically BFFs).
Going up against two Olympic gold medalists (including Gabby Douglas who clinched the Individual All-Around gold at the London Games in 2012) at trials has to be pretty nerve-wracking—and that's before you add superstar Simone to the mix. But when asked about her feelings on competing with gymnastics legends in the making, Hernandez has nothing but admiration (and a lot of love).
"These girls are so calm and collected, I just want to follow in their footsteps and hopefully be a role model for the other girls too," she says." I remember sitting on the couch with my mom as we were watching all these girls thinking, 'wow look at them, they're so amazing!' And now that I'm here and competing with them, it's a really great experience."
And now that they're peers on the Team USA?
"I've been really close to Simone. Our bond gets a little closer every time we see each other," she says. "Me and Aly were just hanging out in the room yesterday, she has her little sock line thing so she was helping me figure out a picture to post to Instagram, and Ashton, we just get along so well, we're always giggling. All these girls, we're all so close, we're like a ton of sisters we didn't realize we had." Awwwww.
4. She's repping Latina pride in the gymnastics world.
Her energy on the floor (THAT wink!) earned her the nickname "Baby Shakira" at age 13, and she's proud to be Puerto Rican, but in the end, Laurie told NBC Sports that she thinks "people are people" and that "I don't think it matters what race you are. If you want to train hard enough to go to the Olympics, you're going to go out and do it."
"Don't have a closed mind," Hernandez told Shape. "If you want to pursue something, then pursue it and just do it. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
And when asked about her Puerto Rican heritage? "I'm still working on my Spanish though so don't test me on that!"
5. Athleticism runs in her blood.
The New Brunswick, NJ-native was a dancer before she asked her mom to switch to gymnastics at just five years old. There's no surprise she was into sports, as her whole family found their niche in one or another:
"My whole family is pretty athletic, my dad did baseball, my mom did tennis and volleyball, my sister did karate, my brother did track when he was in high school and college," she says. "I think athletics just runs through my family and I think it runs through me too. My whole family is just really determined and when we want something, we go get it."
6. She's had the quintessential Olympic dream.
Speaking of getting what she wants, Laurie has been gunning for the Olympics for a long time and even knew that age 16 could be her year.
"Ever since I was a little girl I always wanted to go to the Olympics. And as a kid, you say 'oh I want to go to the Olympics' and we say that just to enjoy it and we watch it on TV. We say 'I want to do that!' but my coach really believed in me and she's helped me build up to this moment... Olympics can be once in a lifetime, so you don't want to wait too long for it, you want to go out and get it. "
7. But she knows who's helped get her there.
While Laurie's all about taking action to pursue her dreams, she knows that the people around her get some of the credit too: "I've really just followed whatever my coach has told me to do. We've been together since I was five years old, so as I'm growing and as we're doing all these competitions and camps and everything, she's learning too. She knows what's best for me, so every practice she's always building what she wants me to do."
But other gymnasts have had just as much of an impact on her:
"I remember watching the 2008 Olympics and seeing Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin just go out and kill it. To see how happy they were and how they looked like they were having so much fun, but also how they were so in control of their bodies, and how they owned all their skills. I thought, 'this is what I want to do'. Same thing for 2012. I remember seeing the 'Fierce Five' and thinking, 'Look at these girls, they work so well together.' And I think that looking up to all these people has helped me reach to where I am today, because I feel like you can only go so far without an inspiration."
8. She stays cool under pressure.
Laurie's been praised for her entertaining floor routines, and it's clear that she was born to perform. You might think she was a ball of nerves in the world biggest stage, but not so much. When we asked what goes through her mind during her performance, it was all about fun:
"This music has a good place in my heart and I feel like the choreography goes well with my personality and all of it just works perfectly together. So when I'm out there, I really am enjoying myself. I'm enjoying the music, and I love to dance, so performing in front of the crowd, gives me a lot of energy during the routine." (We bet the 5,000 crystals on Team USA's leotards will help stun the crowd too.)
9. Her body confidence is on-point.
"You see everybody all over magazines and Instagram and they all have these flat tummies and you're like 'wow that's great' and I don't think I'm exactly flat, but I have a big build and I love it," she says. "I think it's amazing, it shows that I'm strong. I'm able to wake up and eat healthy, but if I want to have a cookie somewhere, I'll have a cookie somewhere." And that's not all she has to say; find out more about why she loves her body, along with 27 other Rio Olympians who are totally into our #LoveMyShape movement.
10. She has the most adorable celeb crush.
If she could fangirl over anyone, it's not Justin Bieber or Kim K—it's singer Tori Kelley.
"I've been watching her YouTube videos for so long and I remember seeing a concert once that my sister took me to," she says. "I think she's amazing and if I met her I'd probably start crying, I'm not even joking. My hair is kind of like hers, so every time I wear my hair down I part it to the side, and my sister's like 'ooh you look like Tori Kelly,' and I start freaking out."