Photos by: © Matthew Peyton

It’s hard to top an Olympic gold medal but New Jersey sweetheart Laurie Hernandez came close last night when she became the youngest contestant ever to win Dancing with the Stars. Hernandez and Val Chmerkovskiy walked away with the Mirrorball trophy after winning season 23.

New Jersey Family junior reporter Olivia Stelzer had a chance to sit down with the Garden State’s sweetheart recently at the grand opening of Bowlero in North Brunswick. Stelzer asked her about gymnastics, the popular show and what she loves most about living in New Jersey.

New Jersey Family (NJF): You started gymnastics at the age of six. Of all sports, what made you pick gymnastics?

Hernandez: I saw Shawn Johnson doing gymnastics on TV, and I wanted to be like her. That is pretty much how it all started.

NJF: What was it like growing up training and juggling schoolwork?

Hernandez: It was difficult. My mom told me that education is just as important—if not more—than gymnastics, so I worked hard to make it work.

NJF: What is your favorite event, and what event do you think you’re best at?

Hernandez: I love floor because I get to move around, be energetic and be myself, but I think I'm best at beam.

NJF: What skill are you most proud of, or which took you longest to achieve and have you ever felt like giving up? What kept you going?

Hernandez: The skill I’m most proud of and took me the longest to get was a Shaposh (Shaposhnikova: a transition move on the uneven bars from the low bar to the high bar). I think it took the longest because I was scared to try it, but eventually I ended up getting over that fear.

At some point, every gymnast and athlete feels like giving up, so it’s good to keep trying. I had my family and friends to support and encourage me to keep going, too which made a big difference.

NJF: Do you have gymnastics equipment at home for training?

Hernandez: Actually, I don’t have gymnastics equipment at home. Home is where I go to get away from practice and relax my brain and my body.

NJF: Is there someone who inspires you?

Hernandez: Yes, my family inspires me just because it took a village to get me to where I am today. My sister and my brother and my dad would drive me to the gym and take me to any doctors’ appointments I had. They are always there to support me.

NJF: What was your favorite part of being at the Olympics in Rio this year, and what did you learn?

Hernandez: My favorite part about being at the Olympics was being able to meet so many different people from other countries. What I learned was that it doesn’t matter where they’re from, if they believe in themselves and they believe in their spirit, they can achieve whatever they want to.

NJF: What are your goals for the future? Are you going to Tokyo in 2016?

Hernandez: I will definitely come back to gymnastics but I’m going to take a little break…but I will be back. They [gymnastic team USA officials] decide who goes to the Olympic that year, so I’ll just keep training and hope for the best!

NJF: Do you like to bowl and are you good at it?

Hernandez: I love to bowl. I used to come here (to Bowlero in North Brunswick) all the time with my sister. It was exciting to come back here after the renovation and see it all new. I think I’m okay at bowling… actually, this was probably the best I ever bowled in my life at the grand opening!

NJF: What about Dancing With the Stars? That must be so much fun! What’s your favorite experience so far?

Hernandez: My favorite experience was that every week I got to act out a new character. Like, one week I got to be soft and really elegant, the next week I had to be fast and energetic. So having to switch back and forth with characters was fun.

NJF: Do you have any tips for aspiring gymnasts?

Hernandez: Set goals for yourself—little and big—and ultimately don’t give up. Just keep trying!

NJF: You are the pride of New Jersey and still continue to make us proud… so here’s a quick fire round about all things Jersey!

NJF: What did you like best about growing up in NJ? 

Hernandez: Going to Six Flags! My family and I love to go there.

NJF: What do you like best about living in NJ?

Hernandez: I love that it’s my home, and how there’s lots of trees. It’s calm and I like that—and how it’s different from busy cities.

NJF: Pork Roll or Taylor Ham?

Hernandez: Pork roll!

NJF: Favorite thing to order at the diner?

Hernandez: Pancakes with syrup or sometimes strawberries.

NJF: Favorite shore spot?

Hernandez: Pier Village in Long Branch. There are lots of little stores you can go to and my mom and I like to go to the chocolate factory, bring back our chocolate and eat it on the beach. It’s a nice memory for me. I prefer milk chocolate but I’ll eat dark, too.

NJF: Boardwalk: Seaside, Wildwood or Point Pleasant?

Hernandez: Oooh…I don't think I’ve never been to Wildwood, so I’ll probably choose Seaside.

NJF: Soft serve ice cream, salt water taffy or funnel cake?

Hernandez: Ice cream, definitely, ice cream! Basically, I like all flavors but cookies and cream is my go-to and if not that, I’ll have cake batter or vanilla with sprinkles!

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What to know about Bowlero:

If the multi-million dollar, newly-renovated 82 bowling lanes aren’t enough for you and the kiddos, check out the state-of-the-art laser tag arena, interactive arcade and the mega menu that’s packed with dishes like the Coney Mega Dog (2-foot long!), pizza cupcakes, and the lane’s signature Behemoth Burger—a gargantuan 5lb-burger topped with bacon, pickles and all the trimmings. Or try the giant S’Mores Skillet for dessert and relax in the comfy couch area and watch the kids shoot a few rounds of pool.

1 Carolier Lane, North Brunswick

Monday to Thursday from 4 pm to 12 am; Fridays from 3 pm to 12 am; Saturdays from 11 am to 2 am and Sundays from 11 am to 11 pm.

732-846-2424, bowlero.com