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Olympian Laurie Hernandez inspires Sacred Heart students

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Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, center, poses with Sacred Heart High School students Sydney Lloyd, left, and Macy Chine after she spoke to students, faculty, alumni and others on the first day of school at Sacred Heart Tuesday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez shares a laugh with Mark Brickson at Sacred Heart School Tuesday during an event to kick off the school year at the East Grand Forks school. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

Lauryn Larson, a senior at Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks, grinned ear-to-ear after posing for a photo with Laurie Hernandez after the Olympic gold medalist spoke to a student assembly on the first day of class.

"I am a fan. I watched her (perform) at the Olympics," said Larson, a figure skater and volleyball and softball player who found Hernandez's talk "really inspiring. It was awesome to hear another athlete ... because the road to the Olympics is really hard."

About 380 students in kindergarten through grade 12, as well as teachers, parents and others, gathered Tuesday in the school gym to hear Hernandez talk with moderator Mark Brickson, a school staff member, about her life, her Christian faith, and the challenges and opportunities that have come her way.

Hernandez's appearance was part of the school's Day One activities, intended to spark excitement about the upcoming school year.

The gymnast, who turned 17 in June, won gold and silver medals in the 2016 Olympics and the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy in TV's "Dancing with the Stars" 2016 season.

Her book, "I Got This: To Gold and Beyond," published earlier this year, appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

At the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, she was praised for her signature dance moves and artistry in floor exercise and balance beam routines. Her expressive face earned her the nickname, "the Human Emoji."

At Tuesday's gathering, Hernandez imparted wisdom beyond her years.

"Find things you like to do, find things that make you happy," she told students. "Find yourself."

"Your future doesn't start 10 years from now, not five years from now or a week from now," she emphasized. "It starts today."

Her fascination with gymnastics began at age 5, but her journey to success "has definitely not been smooth at all," she said.

The petite, dark-eyed and dark-haired bundle of effervescence described moments when she wanted to quit gymnastics, but her mother suggested she revisit the decision in three months—then repeated the advice at several three-month intervals when Hernandez was considering an exit.

"I think she saw the little girl in me who loved the sport, and knew I'd regret it later if I quit."

Students' questions ranged from practical to personal, including if she had ever been the target of "hate" and how she handled it.

"Not face-to-face," Hernandez said. "But, with social media, people think it's OK to say hurtful things, that they're entitled to say whatever they want. They don't realize the person (they target) has a heart and feelings. They say things they'd never say to your face.

"You have to shrug it off. You don't know why they're doing it or what they're going through. Just pray for them."

Like some in her audience, Hernandez is looking forward to her junior year of high school and eventually attending college "and a driver's license would be nice," she said.

"I spend more time in planes than in cars."

Hernandez's visit to Sacred Heart School was funded by an anonymous donor, an alumnus "who said this place made all the difference in his life" and wanted to inspire students at the start of the school year, said Brickson, a donor relations officer with the Sacred Heart Foundation.