Laurie Hernandez was a dancer before she was a gymnast, but not for long. Her parents put her in ballet classes as a toddler, but had to bribe her with cookies to make her go to class. Hernandez thought dance was too boring—then the 5-year-old saw part of a gymnastics competition on TV and wanted “to do what the ‘big girls’ did,” she remembers.
She traded pliés for flips but never lost her innate sense of rhythm. In fact, her dance ability became her signature. From the beginning of her career, fans noticed that Hernandez was really performing on floor—not moving mechanically through her choreography to save energy for the tumbling passes. Every facial expression, every pop of the hip, every wave of her arm was designed to entertain the crowd.
“I love competing floor,” Hernandez said, “because the energy of the crowd is really nice and I can show my personality when I’m out there.”
Hernandez was barely 13 years old when she received the nickname “Baby Shakira” from Jessica O’Beirne, host of gymnastics podcast Gymcastic. “You lit up the whole room. It was like, when you were on the floor, it was like Beyonce and Michael Jackson and Shakira all showed up at once and started doing gymnastics,” O’Beirne told Hernandez when the gymnast and her coach, Maggie Haney, appeared on the show in 2013.
Hernandez and Shakira have both their dance moves and Latina heritage in common: Hernandez's grandparents are from Puerto Rico, while Shakira is Colombian.
"I’m just proud of my heritage," Hernandez said when asked about being a Latina gymnast. "I think it’s amazing that I can just go out there and be myself, and the fact that I’m carrying Puerto Rico on my back a little bit, I think that’s an honor."
But she wasn't thinking about being a minority in her sport when she was working towards her goal of making the Olympic team. "I think people are people: if you want something, go get it," she said.
"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."
Hernandez will be performing a relatively new floor routine in Rio this August. As recently as the Pacific Rim Championships in April, she was using the same floor routine as in 2015.
She debuted the 2016 routine at the P&G Championships in June and has done it in competition just a handful of times. The process of putting together the routine was a bit unusual, too.
Normally, a gymnast and her coach work closely with Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, and Dominic Zito, the official national team choreographer, to develop a floor routine that fits the gymnast’s style, will appeal to judges, and has Karolyi's approval from step one.
But Hernandez and Haney struck out on their own for this routine. “No one has seen it, no judges, coaches, not even Martha,” Hernandez said before the Secret U.S. Classic, where she performed the routine in training but not in competition.
Haney choreographed the whole routine, which Hernandez describes as “a little bit old school.”
“In the beginning I do a little dance where it looks like I’m a waitress, I think, like ‘do do do,’ you know with the skirts and the hair in the bun and the headband and everything. And then all of a sudden, it just snaps into very modernized music, the same tune but just a different way of playing it,” Hernandez said.
Haney’s fiancée cut the music, which mainly uses the song “Da Bop” by WTF!
“It’s such an amazing cut,” Hernandez said. “I’m sure once everyone listens to it they’re going to be wowed by the way that the music is just put together. It’s genius.”
For the choreography, Hernandez and Haney put together a sort of “Greatest Hits” routine, reusing bits of choreography that Hernandez used in the past. “It’s almost like taking all my [past] floor routines and mashing it all together,” Hernandez said.
“I think the crowd is really gonna love it, because it’s very upbeat music and I really feel this routine.”
And just as importantly, Hernandez added, “Martha gave us a thumbs up.”
In training, Hernandez likes to listen to EDM or rap music—she names Drake as one of her favorites. But what about Shakira and her nickname?
“Every time I think of Shakira I think of ‘Hips Don’t Lie,’ so no matter what kind of song comes out right now that’s the only song I ever think of. So yeah, that’s a pretty cool nickname, she’s pretty cool.”