Laurie Hernandez is an Olympic gold and silver medal winner, a published author, a Dancing with the Stars winner, and one of the best in the world at what she does. At 17 years old, she also understands what it means to be a role model.
Hernandez spent Friday at Carolina Gymnastics in Columbia, joining the young gymnasts who train there in raising more than $40,000 to help those fighting breast cancer and honor the memory of a coach who lost her life to the disease.
Her visit was the culmination of 16 weeks of work for the local gymnasts in raising money to benefit the Susan G. Komen organization and the family of the late Coach Pam Mobley.
“It’s an incredible experience and a chance to give back to the community in ways that I never thought were possible,” Hernandez said. “[Mobley] was an incredible local coach. I wish I could have known her personally.”
The fundraiser, organized by Lucas Sports and Carolina Gymnastics, offered the girls rewards for hitting fundraising goals or being among the leading fundraisers. The prizes included a small group lunch with Laurie, autographed copies of her book, or the chance to dance with the Olympian, who also won the TV competition Dancing with the Stars.
Hernandez conducted a clinic for all the gymnasts, including guests from South Carolina Special Olympics. She also shared stories from her Olympic experiences and from Dancing with the Stars, as well as her appearances on the Disney Channel show Stuck in the Middle and on Sesame Street.
She said she loved her time on Dancing with the Stars, but found one aspect of the show challenging despite the similarity of gymnastic floor exercises to dancing.
“It was different because in gymnastics, as you know, we’re all barefoot,” she said. “So I went from not wearing shoes at all to wearing heels, and I ended up getting blisters and rolling ankles and stepping on my partner multiple times. But overall I had a great time!”
Asked about her favorite gymnastics memory, she shared one not from Rio or any of her moments in the world spotlight, but her earliest memory of the sport.
“I was in a yellow T-shirt. I had my hair in a little curly bun. I was walking down the balance beam holding the instructor’s hand and instead of paying attention to the actual balance beam, I was looking in the corner where my family was, and they were all just so happy,” she said. “I could’ve just fallen off, and the instructor was like ‘Please, child, look at the beam.’ That’s my favorite.”
Amid all the fun and lessons, though, the purpose of the day was never forgotten. Joanne Child, owner and president of Carolina Gymnastics, said Mobley remains an inspiration even after her passing.
“She struggled with breast cancer for 10 years,” Child said. “She would do chemo and still come to the gym.” An annual award in her honor, the “Spirit of Pam” award, will be given to the South Carolina gymnast who exemplified that spirit by overcoming adversity to succeed.