Giving has always been an important value for Wanda Hernandez, whose youngest child, Laurie, is a gold medal Olympic gymnast, Dancing with the Stars Champion, and bestselling author.
When Laurie was only nine, giving meant Wanda offered Laurie the option of being homeschooled so she could focus on both school and gymnastics.
“At that point we knew she possessed a special innate skill. She had competed with the best in the country at USA gymnastics developmental camps, so it was just a matter of how much she wanted to dedicate to the sport.”
For a young girl who had spent years walking on her hands, cartwheeling down hallways, and bending her body into human pretzels, the choice was obvious: she wanted to be homeschooled by her mother, Wanda, who is an educator and social worker.
Laurie even proposed a plan: rather than committing to homeschooling permanently, she would approach every school year as a new contract. When September rolled around, she would have to re-dedicate to being homeschooled until the following June.
Wanda and the rest of the family (including Laurie’s older siblings, Marcus and Jalysa, who were both in public schools) agreed to the plan. But Wanda still had her concerns.
“In school you have dedicated blocks of time for math, writing, and socializing. We wanted to make sure she got a proper education as well as a proper social structure.”
They’d have to find a balance. But balance, it would turn out, would become both Laurie’s and Wanda’s specialities.
Laurie Wanted to Be a Different Kind of Gymnast
Without surprise, Laurie continued renewing her homeschooling “contract” year after year as she excelled in gymnastics. All the while, Wanda continued to support Laurie in finding balance between gymnastics, education, and a social life.
“I would set up social time with her friends and cousins so she didn’t lose touch with them because of homeschooling or gymnastics.”
Around this time, Laurie and a group of other gymnasts met a famous gymnast who was (understandably) hurried as she signed autographs for the fawning group of kids.
The interaction spawned a unique goal in Laurie:
“If God ever gives me the gift of being an Olympian, I want to look kids in the eyes, smile, and take time to learn their names and show them how grateful I am that they came to see me.”
Although she was still years from possibly becoming an Olympian, Laurie was giving everything on the mats to make sure she got to the Rio games in 2016. But her path to the Olympics was about to give her something of its own:
Adversity so strong she didn’t know if she’d be able to overcome it.
Wanda Gave Laurie the Choice of Leaving Gymnastics Altogether
Laurie was observant about safety precautions in gyms, including mat placement and vault safety. In fact, she was at times selected by a coach to give feedback for the other gymnasts, even older kids.
“When she started on the uneven bars, she watched YouTube videos and other high-level gymnasts to learn the techniques. Then, when it came time to practice, she put down extra mats whenever she could. She’s been diligent about safety, especially with a new skill.”
Her eye for detail extended all the way down to her wrist supports. She always used the same kind, Tiger Paws, and she always kept three pairs: one to use in the gym, one as a backup, and one at home, just in case.
In 2014, Laurie was 14 years old and had just joined the national team when she fractured her wrist.
Then she tore her patellar tendon, dislocated her kneecap, and bruised her MCL, all resulting in a full six months out of gymnastics entirely. With Rio fast approaching and a short window for Olympic gymnasts, Laurie had reached a crossroads.
Before Laurie went into knee surgery, Wanda and her husband, Anthony, had to be forthright with their youngest child.
“We said, ‘Laurie, we love you. We are confused about whether to continue with gymnastics because we care about you and want you to be safe and happy. But you are our daughter before anything else. So whatever you want to do we will stand behind you and support you completely.’ ”
Laurie had a successful surgery that day. The next morning she was in the living room, where she’d have to sleep for the foreseeable future because she couldn’t use the stairs. Wanda walked into the room as Laurie was doing a split against the wall, her knee still in a brace. She explained to her mom:
“I really love this sport, and I want to continue with it. I need you to support me.”
The Hernandez family gave her just that, all the way through her recovery, her return to the U.S. Junior team in 2015, and gold medal victories in the National Championships and the Japan Junior International.
Things were looking better for the young gymnast, but the trials were not over.
“At no point did we take for granted that Laurie would get to the Olympics. In gymnastics, one day you’re doing well, the next day you’re banged up, and the next day you’re so worn you don’t know if you’ll return.”
Wanda Continued to Guide Laurie Through Her Struggles
It was March of 2016—just months before the Olympic trials in July—and Laurie didn’t know if she could go on.
She’d earned a spot on the senior USA gymnastics team, and she’d worked so hard to return from her surgery, but she’d experienced struggles along the way, both emotionally and physically.
For a kid whose mother had made a concerted effort to help her stay so balanced, the pressure was getting to Laurie.
The breaking point came as the family ate at a restaurant. Laurie cried so hard that the waitress brought her pile after pile of tissues. The tears continued to flow as she contemplated once again whether to continue in gymnastics.
In a moment of foresight, Wanda’s oldest daughter, Jelysa, grabbed the tear-soaked tissues as they left the table. Jelysa then said to their father, “If Laurie goes to the Olympics, I’m going to put these tissues in a box and give them back to her.”
Once again, Wanda and the Hernandez family had given Laurie full autonomy over her future, and Laurie chose to continue forward with gymnastics.
In July, she placed second in the all-around at the Olympic Trials and was named to the Olympic gymnastics team for Rio. Now was her chance to show herself, her family, and the world what she was capable of.
Wanda and Laurie Give Every Chance They Get
Wanda sat her daughter down before the Olympics and reminded her to stay present, enjoy the moment, and remember to be grateful no matter what happens.
“We wanted her to know that our love for her isn’t based on her being a successful Olympian. We love her unconditionally.”
Wanda and Anthony were emotional to the point of tears watching Laurie in the Rio Olympics, which went without a hitch. Laurie won gold in the Team All Around and silver in the balance beam.
Back home after the Olympics, Laurie’s sister, Jelysa, gave her a goodie bag, and inside was the box of tissues from that night at the restaurant.
“I knew I was right to keep these. You’re just lucky we didn’t have to use them in the stands.”
From there, the now-19-year-old––nicknamed the Human Emoji––was catapulted into a surprising fame that she’s still hesitant to recognize, despite co-hosting American Ninja Warrior Junior, appearing on Sesame Street, and her numerous appearances on late night talk shows.
Through it all, the young Olympian takes a page from the family’s book of values and continues to prioritize giving above all else.
The Hernandez family won on Family Feud and gave the money to St. Jude’s.
Laurie spends time fundraising for different causes through Lucas Sports, including Alzheimer’s St. Jude’s Hospital, and many more.
She created a suicide prevention video for the Traumatic Loss Coalition.
In fact, after the Olympics, Laurie was given a chance to be the kind of Olympian she always promised she would be. She did a book signing for a promoter who told her she only had to sign a certain number of books before she could leave.
Laurie insisted that she wouldn’t stop until she had met everyone who had given their time to see her that day.
She fulfilled her promise of being the gracious, kind, and giving gymnast she wanted to be since childhood, regardless of the struggles she experiences.
Because that’s who Laurie chose to be, and because Wanda allowed her to become who she really is: a driven, caring, and emotionally expressive person first and foremost, and an Olympian second.
Giving for Wanda and the Hernandez family has meant allowing their daughter the autonomy to make her own decisions—whether it’s putting an extra mat down to try a new skill or deciding to continue forward despite past injuries—and the unconditional love and support that made those decisions work.
“We often forget that our gymnasts are people just like anyone else. No matter how driven they are, you have to let them be kids first and foremost. They have ups and downs, even when they’re gold medalists, but if you listen to them, love them unconditionally, and give them the gift of balance, they will make you so proud you won’t believe it.”