With her signature curls pulled back and an enthusiastic spirit, U.S. Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez connected with audience members Oct. 20 as the featured guest in this year's Common Experience Insight Series.
Though separated from viewers by computer screens and wifi connections, Hernandez made history as the youngest Common Experience speaker ever at just 20 years old. The event gathered over 2,000 viewers, making it the fifth-highest attendance in Common Experience history.
The discussion was moderated by DaLyah Jones, a Texas State alumna and current writer at The Texas Observer, and focused on Hernandez's life as a Latina gymnast, as well as this year's Common Experience theme of Dynamics.
When asked about dynamics and how it relates to her, Hernandez said being a gymnast comes with various moving parts, both physical and emotional, which she believes is a form of dynamics.
“I like to think as dynamics as the fraction of a second that things happen,” Hernandez said. “That fraction of a second, that’s being dynamic to me. That quick thinking and having to do your best in such a small amount of time.”
For Hernandez, there is an element of dynamics present beyond the mat, such as a change in momentum and emotions. She said with the inconsistency of the current year and the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, she has found herself in moments of uncertainty.
Despite this, she has found that reflecting on her journey and going back to the very beginning of when and why she started gymnastics has helped reinstill a sense of motivation and purpose.
“I started because, in the most humble way possible, I like attention,” Hernandez said. “I like to connect with other people on a stage; it makes me feel like I have something to work for. No matter what the score is, no matter what the place is, I love what I do, and that’s why I’m doing it, and I think that is a really important foundation that sometimes I forget.”
At 16 years old, Hernandez competed at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games where she made history as the first U.S.-born Latina to make the U.S. Olympic gymnastic team since 1984. She won silver in the individual balance beam competition and gold in the team final competition alongside Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian.
As Hernandez prepares for the 2021 Olympics, she now understands her role as a representative for the Latinx community and said it is something she now wears as a badge of honor.
“It’s still such a weird concept to me that I’m this person for Latinos and the community and the Hispanic community, and it just feels like one giant family,” Hernandez said. “I used to feel pressure from that because I knew that people were watching, and now this time around, I can't avoid that people are watching, and I've gained a whole family in talking about being Latina."
She also expressed the need for gymnastics to progress into a more inclusive and accessible sport for Latinx and Black communities. Hernandez said the sport itself is expensive, which can make it difficult for underrepresented communities to participate in.
“Making it more accessible to everybody and not just one group is very important, and I think in doing so we’re going to see a lot more representation, and we're going to see a lot of superstars that wouldn't have gotten the chance before,” Hernandez said.
The concept of connecting and including others is something Hernandez said motivates her as an athlete. Connecting with other people and finding the common ground between others is something she loves.
In addition to finding the common ground with others, Hernandez is also known for her enthusiastic facial expressions and is often referred to as the ‘human emoji’. Hernandez said her expressiveness came from her support system and want to be a “crowd-pleaser”, particularly in her floor routine at the Olympics.
“I know that if I love what I’m doing, then there’s a really good chance that could rub off on everybody,” Hernandez said. “I was so nervous and then the music came on, and if you watch the routine, I’m just smiling for a minute and 30 seconds straight which seems exhausting, and it was, it was very exhausting, but it was natural because I was just so happy to be there.”
As a Latina, she said the idea of self-expression and therapy is often suppressed in communities of color. Now, she has learned that stimulating discussions on topics centered around mental health has allowed her to be more aware of the emotions she encounters.
She said she uses her social media platforms to be more vocal about mental health and to talk about her experiences in hopes of helping others.
"Overshare, under share, you're talking about it, and I think that matters," Hernandez said. "[That is] something I say is going to hit home for somebody else, and they’re going to realize they’re not alone."