Gymnast Laurie Hernandez was barely 16 when she competed with Team USA at the 2016 Olympics and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she won gold in the team event and silver on the balance beam. After getting home, the New Jersey native appeared on Dancing with the Stars, winning the competition with teammate and professional dancer Valentin Chmerkovskiy. Raleigh & Company caught up with her for a Q&A before her trip to the Triangle, where she’ll appear at the Southern Women’s Show April 21-23.

Q: Do you make appearances often at traveling shows like this?

A: Lately I really have been. I like to go out and meet everybody who’s been supportive of me, especially tuning into the book I created a few months ago. I really am trying to give back to the fans and go and do a lot of meet and greets and meet everybody.

Q: How did you get involved with gymnastics?

A: When I was younger, I was at home and the TV was on, and it just so happened that a gymnast was flipping on the balance beam. And I was just like, ‘Wow, she’s so graceful and so powerful and so confident.’ I knew in that moment I wanted to be just like her. I told my mom I wanted to be like her, and she said okay and put me in the sport. I really loved it.

Q: At what age did you realize you could really make a career in the sport?

A: Honestly, I think it was really 2016 that I realized, ‘Wow, it’s an Olympic year, this really could be my year.’ I think at about 9 years old, I knew the Olympics was a goal of mine and that I was going to strive for it.

Q: Has the balance beam always been your event?

A: I do all around, though at the Olympics I did not do all around. I just did the team finals and I did the individual balance beam.

Q: What is your favorite part about the balance beam event?

A: I really like all the events, especially floor. I love to dance, so that’s also one of my favorites. But I think for beam it was just being able to do skills over and over again and understand how to master it and not really wobble, even if you understand the skills, because you only have four inches to work with. I like it because it’s challenging.

Q: What was your Olympic experience like?

A: It was absolutely amazing. I had such a good time in 2016, I would love to experience that again in 2020. I think one of my favorite parts of Rio was being able to meet all the athletes from different countries and their cultures and their sports. We got to even trade pins with them. It was a lot of fun. I have two older siblings and they stayed home, but they were definitely watching, and then both of my parents came to Rio.

Q: Then you came home and won Dancing with the Stars. Was that just kind of a surreal experience?

A: It was amazing. Even before the Olympics, my family and I would come home and every Monday night we’d watch Dancing with the Stars, and my dad would say, ‘Hey, you know, I think you’ll be on that show some day.’ And a year later I got the call that they wanted me on the show, and that was so exciting. He was the first person that I told.

Q: Do you feel like your gymnastics background helped you in the DWTS competition?

A: I think the only thing gymnastics really gave me for dancing was the endurance, not the entire thing, the routine. Gymnastics and dancing are two completely different things. There are many different factors of it, the posture, dancing with heels. There’s a lot that goes into it. At the end of the season I really understood ballroom dancing, but then it was over.

Q: Being 16 years old and having experienced so much in your life already, do you ever just want to pinch yourself?

A: I definitely do. Even now I’ll get these random spurts of like, ‘Wow, I really went to the Olympics.” I haven’t had enough time to really sit down and let that settle in that I was actually able to go and experience all these things in the past year, but it’s definitely a whirlwind. A year or two ago, I never would have thought this could have happened.

Q: So outside of gymnastics, what do you like to do?

A: Does shopping count? I definitely like shopping. Sometimes I like going makeup shopping, looking for new hair products, because my hair is really really curly. Sometimes I like to sit down and braid my own hair for the fun of it. I like to do my nails and watch a lot of movies.

Q: Is it hard to keep up with school while you’re on the road and competing?

A: I am homeschooled. I’m a junior in high school now, and I’ve been home schooling since the third grade. I’ve really learned how to work with my homeschooling program, and I’m really able to just take it with me anywhere I go. I’m basically up to date on everything right now, and it’s really just making sure I’m able to fit that in along with other things like traveling.

Q: So what’s next for you?

A: I mean, right now I’m taking a little break, just because this past year has been a really big whirlwind. But I do want to come back in a few months because I still really love the sport. It’s also nice to have a little rest now, too.

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