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New Jersey’s Laurie Hernandez coming home for gymnastics tour

November 9, 2016 GMT

The cheerful voice on the other end of the phone belies the schedule 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez is keeping. It’s only 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, and Hernandez is waking up after wowing “Dancing With the Stars” fans with her “Cell Block Tango” performance the night before.

But the notoriously difficult competition dance show is only the highest profile thing on Hernandez’s long list of pursuits at the moment. The Old Bridge native and the rest of the 2016 gold-medal women’s gymnastics team has been crisscrossing the country — not only with the Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which comes to the Prudential Center in Newark on Friday, but hitting some of entertainment’s biggest events, including the Video Music Awards and Country Music Awards.

Hernandez is also blogging for Us Weekly about her “Dancing With the Stars” experience. She just announced she will be designing a line of leotards. She’s going to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She is putting the finishing touches on her new book, which comes out in January. And, oh yeah, she’s trying to keep up with the work for her high school homeschooling.

She sleeps on planes.

“It can get pretty tiring to fit all of them in at the same time, but it’s an amazing opportunity to have,” she said.

She’s particularly excited about the book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond.”

“I hope that when they read the book, they can get inspired by my story, how I dedicated everything to gymnastics and then set a really big goal for myself at such a young age and was able to pursue it even though I had a lot of rough spots,” she said. “I hope that other people see that and think, ‘OK, I’ll set something big for myself and maybe I can do that too.’Ÿ”

Hernandez became a star in the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro not only for her gymnastics skills but also for her big smile and matching personality. With that medal and fame come opportunities, and Hernandez hasn’t hesitated to make the most of the offers that appeal to her, seeking counsel when needed.

“I have a great manager and, if anything, I’ll come to my mom if I have questions,” she said.

The travel alone would bring most people to their knees but has done little to diminish the joyful exuberance in the teen. Nor has it hurt her performance. She and dance partner (and fellow New Jerseyan) Val Chmerkovskiy are getting rave reviews each week. While many would say she’s making “Dancing With the Stars” look easy, she swears it is not. Much as just about every other contestant has said, the show is more difficult than she imagined.

“It’s 10 times harder,” she said. “Doing gymnastics dancing is more just poses. Here it’s real, actual dancing. It’s not just putting your foot there. It’s putting your foot there and having an expression on your face. How you’re supposed to put your foot there. There are so many details.

“The heels are a pretty big struggle, too,” she added. “In gymnastics, we’re barefoot but here our center of balance is totally off just by being on our toes the whole time. And having a partner changes everything because I keep stepping on him.”

Hernandez is not the first to seize the opportunities offered after winning a gold medal. Fellow members of the gymnastics tour Aly Raisman and Shawn Johnson both did “Dancing with the Stars” after Olympic successes.

“It’s a good thing to follow the path of the girls because they’re like sisters to me,” Hernandez said.

The sisters will be together again at the Prudential Center. The cast includes not only the Final Five of Hernandez, Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian but Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Jordyn Wieber; men’s gymnasts Chris Brooks, Jake Dalton, Danell Leyva, Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour; rhythmic gymnasts Kiana Eide, Monica Rokhman, Jennifer Rokhman, Kristen Shaldybin and Laura Zeng; and Nicole Ahsinger and Logan Dooley on trampoline.

Hernandez is looking forward to this stop on the tour, a chance to come home, have a bit of the familiar for a change in her hectic, living-out-of-a-suitcase life.

“It’s going to be so nice to finally come back to my hometown after being in L.A. for so long because of ‘Dancing With the Stars,’” she said. “L.A. is a beautiful place, but there’s nothing like home.”

Email: yoriok@northjersey.com