Pound for pound and inch for inch, she may be the most popular athlete in the world.
At least, that’s what the squeals of delight from a church full of young girls suggested on Saturday when Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, all five feet of her, arrived for the Morristown Festival of Books.
“Everybody’s taller than me. I look up to everyone!” joked the bubbly 17-year-old star, who came to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer to promote her autobiography, I Got This: To Gold and Beyond.
It’s the story of a competitor who once finished 21st in a field of 22, and spent six months recovering from a broken wrist, torn tendon and dislocated kneecap.
She rebounded to win a gold medal in the team event and a silver on the balance beam at the Rio Olympics last year.
“There were so many hard times that I was able to push past,” Hernandez said, recounting the joy of standing “in a pile of gymnast tears” when she made the team.
The Old Bridge resident subsequently became the youngest Mirrorball winner on TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:
Her Olympic and dancing contests were challenging in different ways, Hernandez said.
“That’s the beauty of both of them. One is just the same thing over and over again and it’s who can last till the end. And the other is doing so many different things, and you have one week to learn it all.”
Emcee Tara Bernie asked Hernandez, dubbed the “Human Emoji” because of her animated expressions at gymnastic events, to select from a sheet of emojis to match various situations.
When the subject was boyfriends, Hernandez playfully directed her father, Anthony, to turn away in the front row while she chose a symbol.
Bernie inquired about the book title, which now is Hernandez’ signature phrase.
“It was kind of my coping mechanism for being nervous before a meet, which happened every single time. I’d get really nervous, but I knew it was the best way for me to calm down,” Hernandez replied, explaining how she became her own “hype man” to pump herself up.
“You know, ‘You have been training months and months at a time for this routine, and for this event. You’re prepared, you’re ready, you can do this, I got this.’ And different things like that.
“I did that at the Olympics, and they magically got a closeup of me saying it, and it went viral. And now it’s a book cover!”
A book cover that went home with scores of ecstatic fans, who paid $25 apiece to attend Saturday’s event.
“I love her so much! She’s so sweet! She just makes me so happy!” exclaimed 15-year-old Leah Chan of Randolph, moments after getting a hug and a photo with Hernandez.
Leah’s kid sister, Maya, the family gymnast, agreed it was really cool meeting her hero. What she’ll remember forever: “Tripping up the stairs.”
“My stomach was shaking, I was so scared!” said Emma Manzo, 9, of Morristown.
“I almost cried of happiness!” said Emma’s friend, Cora Manchello, 8, an aspiring gymnast.
Nicole Schoenbrodt, who brought her daughter, Julia, an 11-year-old gymnast, looked like she could cartwheel straight onto a balance beam.
“This day was the best day of our life,” the Mendham mom said.
Someday, Julia hopes to go for gold at the Olympics. She knows just what she’ll say:
“I got this!”