By Steve Lichtenstein
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New Jersey has never been known as a breeding ground for world-class gymnasts. Going back nearly half a century, no Garden State-trained athlete has earned a spot on the USA Olympic women’s gymnastics team.

Laurie Hernandez, the precocious 16-year old from Old Bridge, is fully equipped to take down any barrier. Hernandez finished second among a strong field at the Olympic trials on July 10 and will head to Rio de Janeiro next month, becoming the first Puerto Rican to represent Team USA at the games.

Though she will be surrounded by accomplished teammates such as Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, who have already won Olympic and World Championship gold medals, Hernandez will surely be one of NBC’s most heavily featured stars.

Nicknamed the “Human Emoji” due to the expressive nature of her routines, Hernandez wowed USA National Team coordinator Marta Karolyi — as well as the sold-out audience — at the trials in San Jose, California.

When she realized she would be selected to the team, Hernandez’s first thought was, “Oh my god, it’s actually happening. It’s an honor to go to the Olympics and wear USA on my back,” she said on a conference call with the media Friday.

It certainly wasn’t easy getting to the Olympics.

Hernandez took up the sport around age 5, taking regular gymnastics classes at the Monmouth Gymnastics Academy in Morganville. She credits her coach, Maggie Haney, with developing her into Olympic material.

“We’ve grown up together,” said Hernandez. “She’s led me to such amazing places in my gymnastics career. She has a really good heart for me.”

Haney was not expecting to have an Olympian fall into her lap.

“Around 9, I realized she (Hernandez) was pretty good,” said Haney. “Around 12, I believed she was really good. Last year, when she became the junior national champion, I realized we were right on track for reaching this goal this year as long as we stayed the path and followed the plan and nothing went too traumatically wrong. We’re just really fortunate that she’s had basically overall good health and good mental health for the past year, so training has gone really well.”

Like many gymnasts, Hernandez has had to overcome injuries that threatened to derail her career. She was sidelined for all of 2014 with a fractured wrist and then a right kneecap dislocation that required surgery. A piece of a cadaver’s knee was attached to replace her torn ligament.

Haney said Hernandez “really kicked it in after her injury. She was very motivated to catch back up and get back on track. She had just watched her teammate Jazmyn Foberg win the national (junior) championship. I know she was totally happy for her, but I’m sure that also lit a fire.”

Hernandez also took six weeks off from training earlier this year with a knee strain, but her support network again allowed for a full recovery.

“My family has always supported me since Day 1,” said Hernandez of parents Anthony and Wanda and siblings Marcus and Jelsya. “If we have to go out of our way to make a doctor’s appointment or if I need someone to take me to therapy, someone’s always there to help. Even all the gym moms and dads are always helping to get me to the gym or to even help with taking me to doctors’ appointments. So I’m grateful to everyone.”

Hernandez, who has been home schooled since third grade, regularly travels with Haney to Gymland in Hamilton — about 45 minutes away — to take advantage of its superior equipment and overall facility, a rather unique situation for an elite gymnast.

Laurie Hernandez of the United States competes in the floor exercise during Day 2 of the 2016 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships at Xfinity Arena on April 9, 2016 in Everett, Washington. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Laurie Hernandez of the United States competes in the floor exercise during Day 2 of the 2016 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships at Xfinity Arena on April 9, 2016 in Everett, Washington. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“They (Gymland) have been really accommodating to us,” said Haney. “Two gyms in New Jersey really trying to work together to get the kids where they need to get to.”

The next stop for Haney and Hernandez is a nine-day camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas, where Team USA will prepare for Rio. That’s where Karolyi will make lineup decisions, including which two gymnasts will compete for the all-around medals.

Hernandez could be one of them. She has been magnificent on the balance beam, an event she said she once feared until Haney put her through various mental drills. Hernandez bested Biles, the reigning world champion, on the beam at the trials.

“It’s kind of like having a chicken Caesar salad for dinner,” said Hernandez of how she feels about the beam today. “It’s salad, so it’s really healthy, but the Caesar dressing is not, so when you mix the two together, it’s OK.”

Hernandez earned the loudest roars at the trials for her floor exercise performances.

“I love competing floor just because the energy of the crowd is really nice,” said Hernandez. “I can really show my personality when I’m out there.”

Hernandez said that she needs to work harder on her bars routine at the Karolyi camp, but there’s no need to attempt to increase the degree of difficulty in any event just because it’s the Olympics.

As for her hopes for medaling, Hernandez shrugged.

“This is a really great opportunity to gain experience,” said Hernandez. “I’m just going to go out there and do what I’ve been doing in the gym and not change anything. We’re going to do our best to stay consistent and show some good execution. Where I end up is where I end up.”

No matter the results, legions of young New Jersey gymnasts have already found their champion.

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