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Laurie Hernandez turns professional days before Rio Opening Ceremony

Laurie Hernandez
USA TODAY Sports

Laurie Hernandez turns professional days before Rio Opening Ceremony

The 16-year-old gymnast decided to sign with an agent and give up her eligibility for collegiate gymnastics

The rising star of USA Gymnastics has turned professional and committed to continuing in elite gymnastics for the next four years, a press release from USA Gymnastics announced today. 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez has signed with an agent, Sheryl Shade of Shade Global, just days before making her Olympic debut in Rio.

The 2015 junior national champion, Hernandez only joined the ranks of senior elite gymnastics this year and the Olympics will be her first major international competition. She had previously verbally committed to attending and competing for the NCAA gymnastics team at the University of Florida. However, NCAA eligibility rules do not allow professional athletes—those who take sponsorships or are otherwise paid for their athletic talents—to take athletic scholarships or participate in collegiate sports.

 

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In a media conference call on July 15th, Hernandez and her coach, Maggie Haney, were asked if she had any plans to turn professional. "Me and my coach, we haven’t discussed anything like that yet," Hernandez said. "I think all of that is to be decided after the Olympics. It’s just straight on the Olympics right now and we don’t want any distractions."

But Hernandez, who has charisma to spare and has earned the nickname "Baby Shakira" for her dance-filled floor routine, changed her mind in the last few weeks. What may have tipped the scales was her desire to continue competing in elite gymnastics instead of stepping down to the college level, which is generally less difficult, when she graduates high school in 2018.

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 She's already looking towards the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.

“I am excited about what it means to compete at the highest level of this sport and really want to focus on elite gymnastics for the next four years,” said Hernandez in the USA Gymnastics release.  “This was not an easy decision to make, but by making the decision now, it allows me to focus entirely on gymnastics and how I can enjoy this sport that I love.”

Hernandez will begin competing at the Rio Olympics on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 4:30 p.m. ET in the qualification round. The qualification line-up has yet to be released, so it's unknown if Hernandez will compete on all four events on Sunday in order to qualify for the all-around final. Only two athletes per country are allowed into the all-around final, and Hernandez's teammates, world champion Simone Biles, 2012 Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, are all strong contenders. 

Hernandez will then compete in the team final with the U.S. women on Tuesday, Aug. 9. Madison Kocian is the only member of the team who has not turned professional; she plans to join the UCLA gymnastics team after Rio.

"Right now, I am focusing on how I can contribute to the success of this team here in Rio," Hernandez said, "and prefer this does not become a distraction to me or my teammates."

Hernandez's agent also represents 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson.

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