ST. LOUIS (AP) — Laurie Hernandez walked onto the floor at the U.S. gymnastics championships in 2012 and did what most kids do if they happen to see their role models just sort of hanging out.
She kinda freaked.
"I remember fangirling because there were all these Olympians, all these world champions around me," Hernandez said. "I was mesmerized."
Four years later, Hernandez is the one doing the mesmerizing.
Two weeks removed from her 16th birthday, the girl from New Jersey is rapidly becoming the latest "It Girl" in a group already jam-packed with star power. Her electric and eye-opening 60.450 all-around total during the opening night of the 2016 championships on Friday even left the famously difficult-to-please national team coordinator Martha Karolyi mouthing "wow."
"Did I? No. I don't know," Karolyi said with a laugh. "I think it's very important that the girls impress us and if I say 'wow,' I really like it."
There's plenty to like about Hernandez, who has spent the last few months building a compelling case for a spot on the five-woman Olympic team when it is announced in two weeks. The biggest question surrounding Hernandez coming into her first year at the senior elite level had nothing to do with her talent — she won the 2015 U.S. junior title and has been making regular trips to the Karolyi ranch for years — but nerves. Karolyi needed to be convinced Hernandez wouldn't be overwhelmed by the stakes.
She hardly looked freaked out on Friday. Hernandez's score equaled three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman for second behind Simone Biles — who has spent the last three years separating herself from every other gymnast on the planet — and was more than a point clear of Gabby Douglas. Perhaps most impressive? Hernandez's consistency. She finished in the top four in all four rotations, showcasing the kind of versatility Karolyi values as much as any stuck landing.
"This is exactly what we look for," Karolyi said. "We know her routines are good and they are world-class routines, but we have to have the proof she is able to perform those routines when the pressure is growing."
And there may be no greater pressure — not from the crowd, not from the judges, not from her teammates — than the pressure exerted by Karolyi. Hernandez jokes that over the years she's developed her own highly attuned version of extrasensory perception when it comes to the woman who has spent the last 15 years turning the U.S. women's program into a globe-trotting, podium-hogging juggernaut.
"I almost have a Martha sense," Hernandez said. "I don't have to look around to know where she is."
There certainly was no need to scan the constantly buzzing Chaifetz Arena for Karolyi on Friday. There she was in the front row, unmissable in her tangerine jacket while overseeing what can best be described as a gymnastics version of Darwinism. Karolyi's highly regimented plan over the last eight months is geared toward finding out who is peaking as the Rio Games near.
It's a group that now undoubtedly includes the girl who just completed her sophomore year of high school, the one who remembers watching Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson capturing fistfuls of medals at the 2008 Olympics and turning to her mother and saying, 'Hey, I want to go there.'"
Hernandez is as close as any American not named Biles, whose ticket to Brazil was assured long ago. Karolyi has an ever-evolving list in her head, one she said didn't change on Friday and one that — based on her obvious enthusiasm — almost certainly includes Hernandez.
"She competed like a mature gymnast," Karolyi said.
One who describes her style as "sassy," though that may be underselling it. Sure, her floor exercise is filled with so much attitude it would make a supermodel do a double-take, yet Hernandez combines it with athleticism and an "I belong here" confidence that radiates. She performs as if the scores are beside the point. She's out there to have a good time and she wants to you know it.
"It's supposed to be fun, right?" she said.
A notion that can sometimes get lost in the process. The anxiety she felt the first time she visited the ranch as a kid or during her first trip to national championships in 2012 — when she finished a distant 21st — have long since disappeared.
"Going into arenas, the bright lights, all those things, they don't distract me," Hernandez said. "I just focus on my skills and what I've been doing and everything is pretty good."
Pretty Olympian too.