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Laurie Hernandez brings the sass, and the class, at U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics trials

Laurie Hernandez competes in the floor exercise during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose on July 8.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Laurie Hernandez had just wrapped up a fairly lengthy explanation about the process of selecting the music and choreography for her catchy floor exercise routine.

One possibility, the first one presented to her team, had been rejected out of hand, by Hernandez, in fact. And she found an ally in national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“It was very sassy,” Hernandez said. “Of course I’m very sassy. I think it was a little bit too much. Everybody liked it. But I didn’t.

“This routine is going to carry with me and I wanted it to be perfect. Martha said, ‘If she doesn’t like it, she’s not going to do it.’”

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An energetic television personality joined the conversation in the interview area Friday at SAP Center. Hernandez trailed the leader, three-time all-around world champion Simone Biles, by only a point after the first night of competition at the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics trials. The second and final night is Sunday at SAP Center.

“I just talked with Shawn Johnson and I said, ‘What was your big story tonight? What’s your big takeaway? And she said, ‘Laurie Hernandez!’” the TV reporter told Hernandez.

Hernandez giggled and almost seemed to transform — for a second or two — from a 16-year-old into a six-year-old. One minute she was talking about tough, mature calls about her floor exercise program and the next she was overwhelmed at hearing about the praise from her idol.

The old phrase “one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood” seemed to work quite nicely in this case.

Hernandez has gone from celebrating her 16th birthday on June 9 to being one night away from making the five-woman U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. She shared the podium at the nationals late last month in St. Louis with luminaries Biles and Aly Raisman, finishing third in the all-around event.

More importantly, she seems to have the vote — or the nod — from the woman who matters most in the sport. Karolyi gave a nod of approval Friday after Hernandez wowed the crowd with an electric floor routine.

You could say a nod from Karolyi is like lavish praise from other coaches.

Hernandez calls the floor exercise her favorite event, saying, “Something about it pulls out my personality.” Even before the New Jersey-born-and-raised Hernandez started working, at age 5, with coach Maggie Haney, she took dance.

“She is naturally a great dancer,” Haney said in an earlier interview. “What I’ve tried to do with the floor routine is just give her a routine that suits her personality, not try to stifle her.

“Martha has some say in it. She wanted to have something fun and upbeat that everybody could clap to, and I think it was a really good decision. We took some stuff from the old routine and added some new sassy stuff. That might be the best work yet. I’m pretty excited.”

Personality isn’t always easy to get across in a cavernous venue like SAP Arena, so it says something special that Biles and Hernandez could emote Friday night. The arena, home of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, happens to be much bigger than the building where the nationals were contested at St. Louis. When it came time to perform Friday, Hernandez said she felt a lot calmer than at other meets.

“When I first walked in . . . we had a practice that night and I saw how big the arena was, I was a little bit intimidated, ‘Oh, the biggest arena I’ve ever been to,’” Hernandez said.

Her nerves were tested on the uneven bars. Hernandez got out of trouble on the lower bar, finished her routine without further mishap and still finished tied for fifth on that apparatus.

“That pirouette I did, I really wanted to go and hit and hold that handstand like a ‘wow factor.’ I went the other way and had to clean it up and keep going,” she said.

“And I still got a pretty good score.”

Lisa.dillman@latimes.com

Twitter: @reallisa


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