RIO DE JANEIRO — She led them through the dimly lit hallway at the Rio Olympic Arena, her chin high, a mischievous half-smile shining on her face. The way she looked, she could have been holding a royal flush in a game of poker.
The youngest member of the United States women's gymnastics contingent was a picture of confidence as she cantered toward the stadium floor for the start of the team competition finals, her teammates in star-spangled leotards following behind—Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian. Yes, it was as if 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez already knew what would be confirmed two hours later: This year's American women's team may be the best of all time.
"Man, we were ready," Hernandez said. "So, so ready."
What followed was as ruthlessly dominating of a performance as there has been in the last half-century of sport—a feat every bit as impressive as what the Dream Team accomplished in 1992 in Barcelona when it vaporized the field to win basketball gold.
Consider: The American women beat second-place Russia by 8.209 points—the largest margin of victory since the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where six athletes' scores were included in each apparatus total. In Rio, only three individual scores were tallied in each event.
"It just felt like a normal meet, not even like the Olympics," said Biles, the only American to compete in all four events. "We were so crazy ready that we knew we just had to do what we did in practice and we'd be fine. And we were."
A three-time world champion, Biles is the overwhelming favorite to win all-around gold Thursday, but the mantle of breakout American star at these Olympics belongs to Hernandez.
About 36 hours before the start of the team competition, Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator, told Hernandez she would be participating in three events—the vault, the balance beam and the floor exercise. Upon hearing the news, Hernandez, the first Latina gymnast on the U.S. team since Annia Hatch a dozen years ago, felt like screaming in joy. She was selected over Douglas, the reigning all-around Olympic gold-medal winner, and Kocian, a specialist on the uneven bars.
"I've worked so hard for this moment, and I wanted to be out there for my country," she said. "There was no doubt about my abilities at all in my mind."
In the preliminary round of the team competition, Hernandez became a trending topic on Twitter after her floor exercise as she danced and tumbled her way into the imagination of fans across the globe. Nicknamed "Baby Shakira" and "The Human Emoji" for her vivid facial expressions, she engaged the crowd with a stage performer's ease—a prodigy born to be in the bright lights.
In her final floor routine, she again dazzled spectators with her rhythmic moves—first learned in ballet lessons at the age of three. In between opening with a double layout and closing with a tucked double back, she danced like no one was looking, which caused everyone who was looking to roar.
Unable to contain her joy after sticking her final flip—a refreshing trait in women's gymnastics—she blew kisses to the fans.
"I wish I could dance like Laurie," Douglas said. "She can feel it during her floor routine like no one else I've ever seen. That's why the crowd loves her so much, because it's just natural for her."
Much as the crowd loves her, they won't see her in the individual floor final. Even though she finished with the third-best score Tuesday, each country can send only two athletes per event, and Biles and Raisman beat her out. She'll next compete Monday in the balance beam final.
A native of New Brunswick, New Jersey, Hernandez may be the gold standard of Karolyi's system of developing young talent, which has been unmatched in the world for nearly a decade.
Karolyi, a legendary bird dog in the world of gymnastics, first spotted Hernandez at a developmental camp when Hernandez was nine. Impressed with the girl's potential—even then, she had a sassiness about her that enchanted the head of U.S. gymnastics—Karolyi kept a watchful eye on Hernandez, monitoring her progress from afar.
Six years ago, Hernandez started making frequent trips to Karolyi's ranch in Texas for intensive workout sessions, joining other future Olympic hopefuls. Karolyi now calls Hernandez her "baby girl."
"Martha challenges you and can be really hard on you, but she knows how to develop young gymnasts," Hernandez said. "I owe everything to her."
Hernandez's road to Rio was far from easy. Her medical chart reads like that of a 10-year NFL veteran. She's broken her right wrist twice and fractured her left elbow once. She dislocated her right kneecap and tore her patellar tendon after landing awkwardly on a vault—she now has a cadaver's tendon in her knee—and she once couldn't eat solid foods for a few weeks after smashing her teeth against the uneven bars.
"I'm only 16, but I feel like I've been through a lot," Hernandez said late Tuesday night. "But now it's all worth it."
As she spoke, Hernandez, smile aflame, couldn't take her hands off the gold medal draped around her neck.
"I like how it feels," she giggled.
The new jewelry sure did fit her well.