"We Happened to Be Women of Color": How Laurie Hernandez Became a Gymnastics Trailblazer
Little did Laurie Hernandez know she was the first Latina gymnast to represent the United States at the Olympics in 32 years until she was told it out loud in an interview with her teammates. "Those were just the questions I got asked over and over again," she told POPSUGAR. "I said, 'Oh, something's different here. I don't really know what's going on.'"
Hernandez couldn't believe it had been that long. And at the same time, "I couldn't care that it was such a big deal." Only later did she realize what this depiction really meant.
Grew up as an Afro-Latina gymnast
As a young gymnast in New Jersey, Hernandez subconsciously realized that there weren't many athletes in her sport who looked like her. "I remember seeing gymnasts like Mattie Larson who had curly hair and immediately pointed at the screen and said, 'Mom, this is my favorite. She has curls, I have curls,'" said Hernandez. "I was interested in people who looked like me."
"I was interested in people who looked like me."
Her running has never been an obstacle in her gymnastics career, said Hernandez, who is currently training for the Tokyo Olympics. But she knows it might be a different story for others. "It's such an expensive sport," she said. "There were times when we thought I might have to retire because it is very expensive. The sport is very tough, especially with a family who is already struggling to make ends meet. The addition of gymnastics is for Latino and especially difficult for black families. "
The diversity of the 2016 US Olympic Gymnastics Team
In 2016, the US women's gymnastics team won gold at the team event and dominated pretty much everything else. Hernandez, who also took home silver on the balance beam, said the team was so good that their diversity was the secondary act. Hernandez is Afro-Latina, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas are black, Madison Kocian is white, and Aly Raisman is Jewish - but their races have been a big focus.
"We were the best at what we did then," said Hernandez. "And we happened to be women of color. The main story wasn't in our race. The main story was in what we did."
See also: Watch Sara Hall's epic finish at the London Marathon and become the first American to win a medal in 14 years
After the games ended, Hernandez was impressed with the impact she had made. "The number of families that came up and said, 'Hey, my daughter saw you and now she wants to do gymnastics because you look like her.' We only got one story at a time, "recalled Hernandez. "This is such a big deal."
With all the support she felt, Hernandez has also seen the negative side of a celebrity black woman. In True Colors, a new documentary about NBC's Peacock, she tells the story of how she received a racist tweet after appearing on a magazine cover. "Someone replied, 'Check your immigration status,'" said Hernandez. “I thought, 'Just wait for this person to find out I'm a US Olympic champion.'” Also, Hernandez is a second generation Puerto Rican - and “Puerto Rico is literally part of the United States,” she told Deadpanned.
Hernandez is laughing about it now, but she's also not afraid to speak out against occasional racism. "There's no reason for it," she said. "The country is supposed to be a melting pot. We should all come together and stand up together. As a public figure and as someone with solid foundations, I can deal with such things. But I, anyone around me, nor should anyone generally need in the first place. "
There is still progress to be made, and as a trailblazer, Hernandez knows it. When it comes to diversity in gym "it's important to talk about it and start the conversation," she said. Hernandez is in favor of opening more gyms in new neighborhoods and making the sport accessible to as many people as possible. The diversity in gymnastics (and in sport in general) lies in "giving everyone a chance to try something they could really fall in love with".
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