To the surprise of very few people, Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez was crowned the winner of “Dancing With the Stars” Season 23 on Tuesday night.
“I just want to thank everyone for the support and riding along this crazy roller coaster of my life,” Hernandez gushed as she and her partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, were awarded the Mirror Ball Trophy. At age 16, she’s the youngest “DWTS” winner ever. “My goal is just to inspire others as I go with my journey.”
Hernandez won the trophy over race-car driver James Hinchcliffe, who landed in second place, along with former NFL wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the second runner-up. But really, it was never a question that Hernandez was going to win. Here are three reasons:
1. She crushed it in the premiere.
As you may know, we have now correctly predicted the “DWTS” winner five seasons in a row after watching only the first episode. The season premiere is critical to understanding how this series works – always pay close attention to the dancer who closes the show, because producers clearly have high hopes they’ll go far.
Hernandez was that person this season, and she had a fantastic debut. The judges loved her dance style and raved about her “incredible sparkle.” (“You are the total package, girl,” Julianne Hough proclaimed.) Hernandez also tied Hinchcliffe for the highest score of anyone in the premiere. We even asked back then: “Should we just give her the Mirror Ball Trophy now?”
2. She’s a gymnast.
Athletes always do well on this show, as they know how to intensely train for a physical competition. They’re easier to coach. Plus, they’re naturally graceful, and gymnasts especially have quite the advantage: See previous “DWTS” contestants Shawn Johnson (first place) and Aly Raisman and Nastia Liukin (both fourth place).
3. She has an inspiring story.
Votes from the audience also count, and it was clear from early on that viewers loved Laurie. She was at peak momentum after an amazing showing with the gold medal-winning U.S. gymnastics team at the Summer Olympics in Rio. Afterward, the team (known as the “Final Five”) showed up everywhere, from the MTV Video Music Awards to the White House.
Hernandez’s own backstory was featured throughout the season, particularly last week, six days after her grandmother (with whom she was very close) passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Before Hernandez’s performance last Monday, producers played clips of an interview they conducted about two months ago with her grandmother, who was bursting with pride that her granddaughter was on the show.
The video also revealed her grandmother, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico, took a job at the gym where Hernandez trained years ago so the family could have money to put toward her gymnastics dream. By the time the clip finished and Hernandez dedicated her dance to her grandmother, everyone was in tears, including host Tom Bergeron, who called the performance “the most amazing display of courage that I’ve seen in 23 seasons.”
“You represent the American Dream,” said judge Carrie Ann Inaba, who was also crying. “And you also represent the ‘Dancing With the Stars’ dream.”
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