I Got This
ON AUGUST 15, 2016, I WHISPERED SOMETHING TO myself that ended up being heard all around the world. I got this, I said as I touched the balance beam before performing my final routine in the team competition during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I didn’t expect those three little words to blow up on social media the way that they did—they were simply a reminder to myself that I had practiced so incredibly hard for that moment, that I could do it. I said those words to keep myself calm and focused. I said them to give myself confidence. Even months later they continued to have power for me as I competed for the Mirror Ball Trophy alongside my Dancing with the Stars partner, Val Chmerkovskiy. And I still say them today whenever there’s a big challenge ahead.
The year 2016 was a magical one for me. So many of my wishes were fulfilled, I almost can’t believe it. I recently got a journal to start committing my memories to paper, and sometimes after completing an entry I have to sit silently for a while and just absorb it all. Thinking about the Olympics still gives me butterflies! My family, my coach, and all my life experiences have taught me to pursue my goals, to never let doubt hold me back, to take the first step . . . and then the next. And that advice has paid off a thousand times over. As you read these pages, I hope you’ll see that I had a dream, and that by dedicating everything I had to it, I was able to achieve it. I believe wonderful things can happen for you, too. Don’t let your fears stop you. There will be setbacks and disappointments—there always are—but there will also be lots of rewards.
By sharing my story in this book, I want to encourage and dare you to go after your goals. I want to inspire you to do something you never thought was possible. You’ll be amazed at how, by some grace, the path will clear for you. The message I gave myself on that life-changing summer day may have been “I got this,” but the message I hope you hear in every line of this book is “You got this.”
MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THIS ABOUT ME, BUT the name on my birth certificate is Lauren Zoe Hernandez. I guess a lot of other parents in 2000 gave their daughters the name Lauren, too: there were so many of us in my first gymnastics class, my teacher decided to call me Laurie so we’d know which one of us she was talking to. From there, nickname just kind of stuck, and now that’s how I’m known. Since then I’ve also earned the nickname “the Human Emoji” because of the animated faces I make during my floor routines. I love the hilarious pictures of me online making the “openmouthed smiley face” and the “blushing face.” There’s also the “flirty face” and the “scream.” But the one people think most resembles me is the “epic grin.” I’m definitely a happy, bubbly person, and I like the fact that it shows on my face!
A lot of the joy people see in me comes from doing what I’m passionate about, and it also comes from my home life. Before I ever learned the basics of gymnastics—how to cast well on the uneven bars, how to do a handspring on the vault—I learned the importance of being part of a loving family. My dad, Anthony Hernandez, is a court clerk for the New York City Supreme Court, and my mom, Wanda Hernandez, is an elementary school social worker. They’re really adorable. My dad told me that they first met in college and that my mom would study a lot in the library (which doesn’t surprise me) and my dad would always joke around with her. That’s so like him—he’s the comedian in the family, the one who makes us laugh all the time at the dinner table. I guess their relationship just sprouted from there. Since the beginning, communication was important to them, and they’ve made sure it’s important to the rest of the family, too.
Because my mom grew up in a not-so-good neighborhood in New York City, where she saw a lot of verbal and physical abuse, she and my dad decided that when they raised a family, they wanted to be as far from that kind of influence as possible. As soon as they could, they moved to Old Bridge Township, New Jersey. It’s a friendly community where I’ve lived my entire life. My mom swore to my dad and to herself that we’d never have the type of bad behavior in our home that she was exposed to as a child. She made sure that we grew up with a lot of respect and love. She had witnessed the ugly side of life and wanted to create something better for us. I know that’s why my siblings and I have such an awesome connection.
Speaking of my siblings . . . my sister, Jelysa, my brother, Marcus, and I all think our parents are the best life coaches ever. They raised the three of us to treat one another with respect, and it’s because of their example that we’re always nice to each other. When we’re walking down the street, everyone thinks it’s unbelievable how calm and how playful we are together. I know it sounds strange, but we never fight, because we understand we’re going to be with each other for the rest of our lives. People say, “Wait, what? You really don’t fight?” And it’s true, we don’t. If we’re upset with each other, we talk it out. You don’t have to fight and ignore each other for days—that’s just not something that we do in our house. And once we settle a disagreement, we leave it behind us. Our parents taught us to respect our siblings first and to always remember to show that we care.
Jay—that’s what we call Jelysa—is eleven years older than me. She’s more than a big sister, she’s like an extra mom and one of my best friends all rolled into one. She has a master’s degree and is a social worker just like my mother. Even though there’s such a big age gap between us, we’re really close. I know I can tell her anything, and I trust her completely. When I was younger, we used to have sleepovers in her room: I’d crawl into her bed and we’d stay up all night talking. And now that we’re older, it’s funny how we finish each other’s sentences and how we have the same mannerisms. Sometimes it freaks people out. Like one time we were in Starbucks and we ordered cake pops separately, and without even realizing it, we said the same thing in the same exact way. The barista laughed and told us that what we’d said and how we’d said it was so identical, it sounded scripted!
Marcus is awesome, too. He’s four years older than me and in college now. He’s studying economics and sports management at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He’s a great athlete and ran track at Old Bridge High School and was a middle-distance competitor during his freshman year of college. He participated in the NCAA Division I All-American competition, too, which is a big deal. I’m always amazed by how he did all that when there was a ton going on in his life. I’ve been able to really concentrate on my gymnastics, whereas he was competing and juggling so much at once: school, family, social responsibilities, track. Even when you’re talented, every sport is hard and requires a lot of your attention. Right now Marcus is focusing on his studies and his work, but he still always makes time for me and is one of my biggest fans. Like, during the Olympics, he got all of Old Bridge tweeting their support for me! He says he’s super proud of me, and I’m just as proud of him.
Now that I’m on the road touring and training and competing a lot of the time, I miss our family movie nights and the silly things the five of us do when we’re together. I especially miss the way we crank up the music and end up spontaneously dancing when we’re actually supposed to be cleaning the house. . . . Our home is crazy that way. It’s always filled with laughter. Being raised in that loving, joyous environment taught me to be respectful of other people. And seeing my parents’ journey, and all they’ve given to my siblings and me, taught me something I will carry with me for the rest of my life: you can always change your circumstances in life if you put your mind to it.
THE KARATE KIDS
IN ADDITION TO MY BROTHER, MY WHOLE FAMILY is actually pretty athletic. I’ve seen pictures of my dad playing baseball when he was younger; he was a center fielder. My mom was into volleyball and tennis and was in amazing physical condition when she was in the US Army Reserve during the 1980s. It was wild growing up and hearing all her stories about basic training. But my parents’ appreciation for sports and fitness wasn’t the only reason they started taking us to martial arts classes when I was just two and a half: my mom also really wanted her very own Karate Kids! Because she’d grown up in a tough environment, she was determined to teach all of us self-defense.
Although my mom only enrolled Jelysa and Marcus in the actual classes, she brought me along to the dojo to watch. She even dressed me in my own gi. Whenever my mom tells the story, she says I used to stand behind whichever sensei was teaching that day and copy every move he or she made to a T. When the senseis saw that I could keep up, they began to come over and encourage me to try different moves.
Once my mother realized just how flexible I was, she decided to enroll me in ballet classes. But at that age, all I wanted to do was dance around, and ballet was a little too serious. They did give out sugar cookies at the end of each session, so at the very least I always made sure I got through the workout—I really wanted those cookies. I must have liked the performance aspect of ballet, though, because my mom tells this story about how I shined in my first recital. We were set to perform “Animal Crackers in My Soup” at a local vocational school whose auditorium could seat about six hundred people. When the curtains parted, all the other kids hung back and some even began crying. But not me! I stepped out, found the spotlight, and did my dance exactly as we’d rehearsed. It was clear that performance was my calling.
By the time I was five years old, I was ridiculously energetic, walking around the house on my hands and constantly jumping up and down on my bed. That’s when my mother decided to sign me up for acrobatics. I was so excited! But when we showed up for the first class, we found out that nobody else had registered, so the instructors were canceling it. I was devastated: I had really wanted to take that class.
Then one day I was watching TV, and I saw Shawn Johnson doing flips. I can still remember how graceful and controlled she was—even at that age I could see she was pure magic on the beam. I pointed at the screen and said, “Mom, look! I want to do gymnastics, and I want to go to the Olympics just like her!” Can you believe it? My mom could tell I was serious, so she said, “If this is what you want, I’ll search for a class.” And she did. That’s when we found my very first instructor and signed me up for a forty-five-minute recreational class focused on the basics.
On the first day, my mom said to the instructor: “I would like my daughter to learn how to do a cartwheel and a split. If she can do that in six weeks, I’ll keep her in.” As you probably guessed, I learned both in less time than that. I loved flipping and watching everyone around me flipping, too. I knew right away that this was my sport. That was the end of dancing and karate lessons—I was hooked on gymnastics. One of my earliest memories of that time, right at the very beginning of my gymnastics journey, was performing in a pretend competition my instructor organized. I remember I was wearing this yellow T-shirt and it was the smallest audience ever. But, no surprise, my whole family was there. Looking at my parents in the bleachers, I kept thinking, Hey, look at what I can do! I was so happy.
There I was, walking on the beam, holding someone’s hand in this mini pretend competition one minute . . . and then the next thing I know I’m in real competitions. The transition happened like that. Looking back at those early years, I think my mother got more than she ever imagined: Jelysa earned her black belt and became the Karate Kid my mom always wanted; Marcus’s training in track and field guaranteed he had enough speed and stamina to run from trouble if he ever encountered it; and I was constantly in motion, beginning my path to Olympic gold and silver.
DOING MY LEVEL BEST
IN AMERICA, IF YOU WANT TO PARTICIPATE IN organized gymnastics and compete against other kids at your skill level, there are a few ways you can go about it. One way is to join a league like the AAU, which is a multisport organization for amateur athletes. But if you’re someone like me—someone who’s always dreamed of competing on the world stage—then you definitely want to participate in the USA Gymnastics program. USAG basically trains and selects up-and-coming gymnasts for the Olympics and the World Championships.
To climb the ranks of the USAG system, you have to complete ten specific training levels. Levels 1–3 teach very basic skills—that’s what I was learning when I was in my introductory class. When you want to move up to the big-girl levels and start to compete, it’s up to your coach to recommend you. I don’t know if my first instructor thought I was talented enough or if she just saw me as a sweet kid eager to take the next step, but after being with her for a while, she told my current coach, Maggie Haney, about me.
I was seven years old when my parents and I first met Maggie. She was coaching a team of female gymnasts who were all competing at Level 4 and above. By Level 4, you need to learn a specific routine for each event, and you need to do it exactly as it’s supposed to be performed. It’s all about acquiring a particular skill set. Then, to advance from Level 4 to Level 5, you must achieve a certain mobility score. At first, it wasn’t clear if I would fit in with Maggie’s Level 4s: most of the other girls were a year or two older than me. But I was the type of student who picked up new skills quickly! After succeeding at Level 4, I stayed with the same group of girls through Levels 5 and 6. During that time, my mother, who came to see all my events, noticed that my “lines”—meaning the straight lines created by my arms and legs—were improving significantly and that my skills were developing at a more rapid pace than the other girls’. That’s when we questioned whether things were advancing too slowly for me. Maggie had never trained an elite-level athlete before and therefore had no one to compare me to, so she decided it was time to contact USA Gymnastics about their Talent Opportunity Program (TOPs).
The point of TOPs is to evaluate young female gymnasts’ talents. It’s a combo talent search and educational program for girls between seven and ten, who are evaluated at the state or regional level. Then select athletes are invited to participate in the National TOPs test, where you’re evaluated on physical abilities and some basic gymnastics skills, and you’re graded based on how everyone else your age is performing. The highest-scoring gymnasts are then invited to participate in the National TOPs Training Camp.
I was only nine when I arrived at TOPs, and I had no idea what to expect. That was the first time I thought, Wow, I’m really progressing. I could see how far I’d come. There were all these different tests: there’s a specific rope-climbing exercise you have to do, keeping your legs parallel to the floor. They also have a test where they see how long you can hold a handstand. Then there’s a press-handstand test and a leg-lift test. Finally, to assess your flexibility, you have to do a series of kicks and holds.
Sure enough, after I completed the program over the course of a few days, we found out I had gotten the number one score among nine-year-olds in the country! Once my TOPs scores proved my potential, training at the TOPs developmental camp was the next logical step. If you rank at the top of your age bracket in the country, you’re invited to go to Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Which meant I was headed for Texas! There, I could continue learning and perfecting my skills. This camp is a rung below the camp you attend when you’re training for the Nationals—which is an elite-level competition—and it shares the ranch with the national training center for the US women’s gymnastics team. It was all very exciting but nerve-racking, too! At the time, the camp was run by Marta Karolyi, who had been the USA National Team coordinator since 2001. Marta is legendary for having helped mold some of the greatest gymnasts in the world. It was a real privilege to be able to go there.
The camp is on this huge complex in Huntsville, Texas. It has state-of-the-art equipment, a dance room, several different types of gyms, a medical room, a dining hall, and dorm rooms. In the beginning I was training there for five days every two months; later, I would train there for five days every month. Marta brought in experts to give us tips and to help our coaches learn different techniques, too. I’d study new skills and then go home to New Jersey and work on them with Maggie at Monmouth Gymnastics Academy until I returned again the next month to show the camp staff my progress. I loved those weeks at the camp, and it was there that I realized I wanted to dedicate myself to gymnastics full-time.
All the gymnasts had practice sessions in the morning and afternoon, and we had lots of fun in between, too. I met girls from everywhere in the country, and we slept in bunk beds in dorms that looked like log cabins. In Huntsville I was also surrounded by nature, and I encountered so many different types of animals. It’s where I saw my first armadillo! I felt like I was growing by leaps and bounds, inside and out—just like a gymnast is supposed to.
That’s also when homeschooling began. It became necessary because I was traveling so much between home and Texas. People often ask me if it was hard leaving my New Jersey classmates behind, but what they don’t realize is that I started homeschooling when I was only two weeks into third grade. So it wasn’t as if I was leaving lifelong friends. Not to mention that I was in the gym all day, doing what I loved most! And there were still lots of kids in my neighborhood in New Jersey I enjoyed playing with. Our community was unusually close, and each year we celebrated major holidays with the same group of family friends. My favorite get-together was our annual New Year’s Eve party, where we’d have a formal dinner with lots of music. It wasn’t only the parents who got up to dance—all the kids would be twirling around and having a ball, too. And then there were my best friends, Shannon and Paloma Rodriguez, who are like sisters to me. My mom and their mom, Anna, met in the military and became super close. By some crazy coincidence, my mom also knew their father, Juan, when the two of them were growing up in New York. Anna and Juan are literally my parents’ best friends in the world. They’re Marcus’s godparents, and my mom and dad are both Shannon’s and Paloma’s godparents. They live nearby, too, so we see them all the time—we’ve even vacationed together. That’s how much like a tight-knit family we are! So between Shannon and Paloma, all my cool neighbors, and my gym friends, I was never lonely.
And, to tell you the truth, I actually liked homeschooling. The particular distance-learning program I used is called A Beka Academy. It’s a Christian-based curriculum accredited for kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade. So my parents knew that once I got used to it, it would be something I could follow consistently until I graduated. It came with a series of CDs and videos, and the CDs connected me to a teacher, while the videos featured whatever book I was using. And my mom had a manual that outlined what the assignments were for a given day. There were a couple of marking periods where I had to take different tests for each subject, and there were quizzes and reports I had to do. Then we’d pack up all my work in an envelope and send it to Florida, where it was reviewed, and a few weeks later I’d get a report card. The best part was that the program was designed to help you learn at your own pace, which was helpful given my crazy schedule.
I’m a pretty good student who’s always liked writing, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also started to appreciate history more and more. I see it as a form of storytelling that gets your imagination going. In one lesson, I remember learning about the voyages of Christopher Columbus. We have the technology to fly everywhere now, but back then they had to sail on these rickety wooden boats. There was no GPS, just maps, charts, and night-sky readings that weren’t very accurate—and somehow they still made it. If you think about how Columbus and his crew pushed themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally to overcome all kinds of challenges and to survive the dangers of the sea, it’s mind-blowing.
As more of my teammates started homeschooling, too, we would sit and do our work together, which made it feel less isolating. We were all at different grade levels, so we’d help each other if someone was struggling with a subject we’d already covered. The older kids deserved an A for taking care of the younger ones. Sometimes it felt like we went to our own private school—albeit one where everyone took advanced placement phys ed. What revive you and helps you do better when you return to the more challenging things you do every day. We should all tell our minds and bodies that we appreciate their role in making us achieve our goals. Between my intensive training schedule, my self-care regimen, and the kind of education I was getting through A Beka, I definitely got good at taking care of myself: mind, body, and spirit.
SWEATY PALMS, PRAYERS, AND PEPPERMINT OIL
AT COMPETITIONS EVEN TO THIS DAY, BEFORE I get on the equipment, I usually feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. Those moments are still the worst for me, and the jitters are my least favorite part of competing. I don’t know why my heart beats so fast—it’s almost like I can hear it—and my palms get all sweaty. But once I start moving, I’m okay, especially on floor: as the music begins playing, I feel extremely calm and comfortable; by mid-routine, I realize how much fun I’m having; and by the time I’m flipping or dancing, I’ve left all my worries behind. I can hear the crowd clapping to the music and yet I can still focus at the same time. The difference in how I feel before and during my floor routines never ceases to amaze me.
When I was younger, it was a bit different with the other events. Whenever I’d do beam routines, I’d be the most nervous, and it was written all over my face. I would be thinking, Wow, I’m really scared—so scared that once I sit on the beam, I’ll feel as if I can’t stand up. I remember my first Level 4 competition like it was yesterday. The meets always include events on the uneven bars, the balance beam, the vault, and floor exercise, and we refer to them simply as bars, beam, vault, and floor. At the Level 4 competition I was freaking out because I’d forgotten my beam routine and then I needed a spot on bars, which is when someone assists you in landing safely. But finally, I did floor and got a 9.5! I thought that part was the craziest thing.
There was another day I’ll never forget. I was struggling hard with overcoming my nervousness, so my coach, Maggie, decided to shut off the music in the gym. There was nothing but dead silence. Then she made the whole class—kids, parents, and staff—sit on the floor and watch me do a beam routine. She made me do it over and over and over again until I felt comfortable. I hated it, but after that, the pressure of competing wasn’t so bad.
Basically, I think it’s the music that makes doing floor routines less stressful than doing bars or beam. With floor, you have to multitask and dance to the beat at the same time. Because you’re concentrating so much on that, there’s no room for being nervous. That’s probably why it’s one of my favorite events. By contrast, when the music is off for bars and beam, it’s just you, your thoughts, and the equipment. The skills you have to execute are so complex, it’s easy for the thought of falling to creep into your head. Purposely turning off the music trained me to think only about the task at hand.
In addition to training hard, I do have two little tricks that help ease my nerves. A long time ago someone introduced me to peppermint oil. Whenever I’m feeling stressed before a competition, or whenever I get frustrated in practice, I’ll take a minute or two away and just smell the oil. I feel like it clears my head. I started taking it to all my meets and telling everyone about it. When I joined Dancing with the Stars, the show bought me some, which I thought was kind of funny. I also have this little calming ritual I do once I’m on the beam, and it’s practically involuntary at this point. I put my hand over my stomach, close my eyes, inhale, pause, and then exhale. As I feel my belly expand and contract with those breaths, the anxiety and adrenaline usually melt away. It’s more than a habit now—it’s almost like a part of my routine. A lot of people commented on it during the Olympics!
While peppermint oil and breathing techniques usually help ease my nerves and frustrations, unfortunately they don’t do anything to help cure the occasional disappointment I feel after a bad meet. I have to rely on some of my mother’s best advice for that. I remember this one awful competition after I’d moved up to the elite level. It was 2012 in St. Louis at the USA Gymnastics National Championships, which we all refer to as the P&G Championships, or the P&Gs for short. It was only the second big event I’d participated in in my life, and I came in twenty-first place that day. When the competition was all over, I started to cry. My coach seemed so disappointed in me, and of course, I was disappointed in myself. My mother came over and asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she said, “Do you know how many people in this world would love to be twenty-first at the P&Gs? Or how many people will never even get an opportunity to compete?” That was so like my mom; she firmly believes in the art of gratitude. Then she said, “Girl, we’re not going to cry, we’re going to celebrate!”
I couldn’t believe it. Celebrate?
But she was right. Not many people ever get to where I was. So she wiped away my tears and bought me some ice cream. As we sat on the grass eating, I heard this little girl whisper to her dad, “Look, there’s Laurie.” When they got closer, the girl asked me for my autograph, and we took a picture together. It was adorable to see how happy she was. Whoever those people were, they saw something in me, and in that moment, they helped restore some of my confidence. Now whenever I’m fangirling around people I admire, I think about that moment—you never know how much your appreciation can lift up someone else’s spirits.
Later that afternoon my mom and I talked some more, and she reminded me that a lot of times disappointment is what helps you grow. It presents an opportunity to improve. She told me that if I’d done the best that I could in that moment, under those particular circumstances, then I was only responsible for my own reaction, because that’s the only thing I was really in control of. I cannot be responsible for the reactions of fans, teammates, judges, coaches, or anyone else—which is an important lesson all athletes need to learn at some point. You can tell that my mom is a wise and spiritual woman. There’s a lot of prayer and faith happening in my family. More than anything—even more than peppermint oil—that’s what keeps me calm and centered. I find it makes it much easier to deal with the kinds of mental and physical stresses I face.
I have to admit that as rough as those first competitions were, they ended up being pretty positive experiences. Now I recover from disappointments more quickly and with more optimism, and when I find I’m nervous, I tell myself not to worry, because I’m right where I’m supposed to be. There’s no reason to be anxious. All I have to do is just chill and go with it.
DURING THE STRETCH FROM 2009 TO 2012, I WAS working my way up the USA Gymnastics ranks to Level 10. Every so often, I’d look back and think, Oh, I’ve come so far, I can’t even believe I’m at this point right now. Then in 2012, after having passed Level 10, I was able to begin competing regularly at the junior elite level. I was twelve years old at the time (you can’t be a senior elite until the year you turn sixteen). All I can say is: when you finally step into those higher-level competitions and you see girls in your age group doing all these amazing skills, the reality hits you. You have a moment where you just take it all in and think, Wow, I’m a part of that.
Now, before I tell you about all the competitions I started doing, let me explain how scoring works. To win an individual title on an apparatus in a competition, you have to have the best score of the meet on that apparatus (for example, to win the title for beam, you must place first on beam in the overall competition). To win the all-around, you have to have the best overall combined score of each apparatus event—the vault, bars, beam, and floor events—during that competition.
Gymnastics scores are generally calculated on two basic components: how difficult the routine is and how well the routine is executed. To score for difficulty, the judges begin at zero and add points for how well you meet each of the required skills, how well you performed the most difficult skills in your routine, and how well you connected two of the tougher techniques together to form what we call a “combination.” To score for execution—basically, how well you did overall—the judges start at ten and subtract points for mistakes, such as faltering on a landing, not keeping your toes pointed, or separating your legs when they should be together. Each of the eight most difficult skills in your routine have assigned values according to the sport’s Code of Points, but the judges can award extra points when very difficult skills are combined well. The more fluid the connections between difficult skills, the higher the score you get—that is, unless you make a mistake. (For this reason, sometimes being too ambitious can cost you points!) To arrive at your final score, the difficulty and execution scores are added up, and then “neutral points”—points deducted for things like stepping out of bounds or taking too long to complete your routine—are subtracted. You’ll notice that there is no such thing as a perfect 10 anymore, because if you add enough difficulty to your routine, you can earn way more than ten points. In fact, at the Olympic level, it’s not unusual to see scores ranging between 13 and 16.
With that taken care of, let’s move on to the action!
My first Level 10 event was the Secret US Classic—which we refer to as the Secret Classic. I remember I wore a hot-pink leotard that day (I love that color!), and the lights were really bright, and being on a podium frightened me a little. When you have a large crowd like that, the equipment is put on a raised platform roughly three feet off the ground so the audience can see better. I had never been at a competition big enough to require a podium, but there were a lot of people at this meet. The whole thing was a little intimidating until I got used to it and just focused on my routines.
I actually fell on bars that day, which scared me at first. But in order to move on from there, I had to pretend that nothing had happened. I took a deep breath and told myself, You know what, we still have the rest of the competition. This is your first time here. Just give it your all. And I did.
Although that fall on bars got me off to a rough start, it all came down to vault. I needed a 13.45 in order to qualify for the P&Gs in St. Louis, and that’s the exact score I got! It was insane. And I also ended up placing eleventh all-around in the junior division.
It was around this time that I made another big leap: I was asked to train at the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Camp. As you might remember, this camp is also located at Karolyi Ranch in Texas, just like the developmental camp I’d been going to for years. Although it was the same exact place, the National Team practices were held at different times with a different group of girls, and the vibe was totally different, too (i.e., much more serious). The developmental camp works with up-and-coming junior elites, while the National Team Training Camp is where all the highest-level gymnasts go to train—essentially, the girls working toward international competitions and the Olympics.
As soon as I arrived at the National Team camp, I was surrounded by the best of the best. It was very intimidating. I asked myself, Am I supposed to be here? I watched the other girls both inside and outside the gym. I observed the way they were doing a certain skill, how they put on their grips, what they did to keep their hands from hurting or ripping on bars. And since we roomed together, I got to know them all well, too. I saw how they managed their time and how they relaxed. And it was cool because we all became friends.
GETTING OUT OF THE COUNTRY
MY FIRST MEET OF 2013 WAS THE WORLD OLYMPIC Gymnastics Academy Classic, known as the WOGA Classic. I placed second in the all-around and felt great. I’d done super well on every single one of my events across the board!
Later, in July of that same year, I competed in the American Classic in Huntsville, Texas, where I placed first on floor, second in the all-around, and third on both beam and vault. It turned out that Jordyn Wieber, one of the gymnasts who went to the 2012 Olympics, was also staying in my hotel. When I saw her walking around one night, I snuck out and got a picture with her—she was someone I’d really looked up to, which made it even cooler.
After my thirteenth birthday, I was added to the USA Gymnastics Junior National Team. The National Team is usually chosen in June, sometimes in August, and you get to stay on the team for a year. It’s made up of eleven or twelve American girls who have qualified because of their high scores at competitions, and it’s only the National Team members who get to compete internationally. I felt such a sense of accomplishment having been chosen, and the whole rest of the summer was so exciting! I went to Chicago for the Secret Classic again, and this time I placed sixth all-around and won the floor exercise title. But what was most memorable for me was returning to the P&G Championships in St. Louis, where I felt I’d done so poorly the year before. By this point, with enough competitions under my belt, neither the bright lights, nor the crowds, nor being on a podium could bother me. It was a two-day competition, and I remember hitting all my events. (“Hitting,” by the way, means that I killed it, doing all the skills in my routine super well.) I placed second on bars and floor and tied for third on beam with the very talented Alexis Vasquez. But the real highlight was winning the silver medal in the junior all-around competition, with a total score of 116.650. I came in behind Bailie Key, who is not only one of the best junior gymnasts in the world, but also one of the people I admire most in the sport. She was an awesome teammate and someone I was hoping to emulate, so it amazed me when I scored almost as well as her that day. It took me a minute to process what an accomplishment that was!
As I went to more and more of these events, I started noticing a funny pattern: if I had a horrible warm-up, I usually ended up hitting a really nice routine. It doesn’t work that way for everyone. Sometimes a bad warm-up can throw people off. But I tend to think warm-ups are where I work out my jitters. Now, I’m literally known for my bad warm-ups! Luckily, bad warm-ups were translating to amazing meets, and with all this great momentum behind me, I felt happy about my national competitions and was looking forward to my next big step.
When I first began competing on the national level, people would constantly say, “All you have to do is get out of the country.” If anyone overheard us, they’d have thought we were fugitives! But what they meant is that you have to be good enough for Marta and her staff at the USA National Team to trust that you’ll hit your routines when they send you to compete internationally. Once you’re “out of the country,” you’re competing on a global level. It means you’re one of the best in the world.
By September 2013, Marta and the other coaches did trust me enough, and they sent me to the Japan Junior International in Yokohama. I was so excited I could hardly wait. Unfortunately, my family couldn’t make the trip with me, but they watched every second of the competition on Livestream. Marta wasn’t at that competition, either—it was just Bailie and me there competing for the United States, plus my coach, Maggie, and Bailie’s coach, too. Bailie was the perfect person to go with, because she’d been to a couple of international meets already. She knew what she was doing, so I just kind of followed her lead to avoid doing anything wrong.
One of the biggest challenges when you’re competing internationally is getting used to the time difference. I could always make the adjustment when I flew from New Jersey to Texas for camp, since that’s only a one-hour change. But the time difference between New Jersey and Japan is fourteen hours! That meant that while we were competing at four o’clock in the afternoon in Japan, it was really six o’clock in the morning at home.
To help us manage the time change, we slept on the flight there and scheduled a workout for the evening we arrived. But I still had a hard time sleeping at the hotel. I just wasn’t used to the beds: they were very hard because there was a wooden plank under the mattress, and the pillow was like a giant beanbag. Apparently, those types of beds and pillows help improve your posture, but they didn’t do much for my sleep.
Since I was tossing and turning in the middle of the night anyway, I’d get up and call my family and talk to them just as they were getting home from work and school. I learned that Bailie had the same idea: the walls were so thin between our separate rooms that when she was FaceTiming with her parents, I could hear their conversations, and whenever I was Skyping with mine, she could hear us. To make sure we were awake in the morning when we were supposed to be, we would bang on the wall and check that the other one was out of bed. We didn’t want to oversleep and miss practice or the competition!
In the end, the Japan Junior International was kind of a rough meet. I was not only tired, but since it was my first international competition, I was nervous, too. I fell on bars, did great on my individual beam final qualifying score, and then fell on beam in the final. In the end I scored a 56.750 in the all-around to win a bronze medal, and I took third on vault, fourth on floor exercise, and sixth on beam.
Around Thanksgiving that same year I went to the International Junior Mexican Cup in Acapulco. While I was excited to travel again, I don’t think people realize just how difficult it is to be away from your family on holidays or to miss family vacations. But I have no regrets, because I was doing what I loved. And besides, our host country on that trip was so thoughtful, and they held a special Thanksgiving dinner for us. The food was great, and it would have been nice to spend more time with our new friends—but we have strict rules before competitions, and getting back to the hotel early to get a good night’s sleep is one of them.
The International Junior Mexican Cup was a big competition for me. Marta was there and so were some senior team members I’d watched and admired for such a long time. I recall doing my beam routine over and over during pre-competition practice and hitting it every single time. That was a great feeling—but what was even better was that Marta noticed. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told me my beam routine was absolutely beautiful. It’s a well-known fact that Marta doesn’t give compliments easily!
At the competition, vault went well. After that it was kind of back and forth for me and Bailie: I made floor and she fell. Then she made bars and I fell. So just before beam, I got really scared and started to have a mini meltdown—What if I fall in that event, too? In a competition like that one, you’re always thinking about what every little move means for the team. But the rest of the team encouraged me, saying, “Hey, you’re fine. Stop stressing out. You got it!” So I went up there, and of course, I got my cool back and beam went well. The team, which was composed of me, Bailie Key, Veronica Hults, and Emily Gaskins, won a gold medal that day, and I took second place behind Bailie in the all-around.
As it turned out, Marta looked closely at our individual scores even during team competitions. We were all on Marta’s radar, but she had so many girls in the program, it’s not like she saw me in action all the time, since the seniors tend to be her priority. When she was choosing who to bring to Acapulco, I suspect she’d seen I’d come in second at the P&Gs. Even with that, I have to believe that seeing how close I came to the hottest competitor at the Mexican Cup was mind-blowing for her and the others. I mean, it was pretty mind-blowing for me! I was only three-tenths of a point behind Bailie. I usually don’t pay attention to other people’s scores during competitions, because I have to keep my head on my own performance. So seeing the end results was pretty wild.
Comaneci knows who I am! I held on to her words for a few minutes, and after that, I think I just floated away.
Nadia was trained by Bela Karolyi at the experimental gymnastics camp that he and Marta established in Romania before they came to the United States. While it was Nadia who first inspired the world to fall in love with artistic gymnastics, it’s been Bela and Marta who’ve kept that love alive by fostering the careers of so many amazing gymnasts since then—gymnasts ranging from Mary Lou Retton to Simone Biles! This sport owes so much to all three of them. I owe so much to all three of them.