LOS ANGELES — It’s hard to top being an Olympic gold medalist, but winning Dancing with the Stars comes pretty close for Season 23 champ Laurie Hernandez.
“Honestly, I feel like they tied (with) each other,” she told USA TODAY shortly after she and pro partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy were named the winners of the ABC dance competition on Tuesday.
“The Olympics, as a little kid, it was such a big goal that I created for myself and I was able to push through and make that happen. … I’ve always loved to dance and my passion was dancing as well as gymnastics, so winning the mirrorball (trophy) today was insane and amazing,” said Hernandez, who hit the post-show red carpet with Chmerkovskiy, runners-up James Hinchcliffe and Sharna Burgess and third-place finishers Calvin Johnson Jr. and Lindsay Arnold.
Will the mirrorball trophy reside with her Olympic gymnastics medals, including a gold from the women’s all-around team competition and a silver in the balance beam at the Rio Games in July?
“Probably,” the 16-year-old said. “Or maybe like in the center of my house.”
Chmerkovskiy, now a two-time pro champ, says he finds Hernandez inspiring and hopes others, especially younger fans, do too.
"I wanted to set an example through her … for her generation that anything is possible. To stay hungry, to stay humble, she's a testament to that," said Chmerkovskiy, just before he joined Hernandez and fellow dancers on an overnight flight to New York and an appearance Wednesday on ABC's Good Morning America.
Hernandez agreed. "I do want to inspire others…When I was a little kid, I looked up to other people, so I hope I can inspire little kids."
The new champ praised her fellow finalists as the "most amazing competitors" and former NFL star Johnson said he was happy for Hernandez. "She was outstanding this season."
Some consider this season's celebrity field the most talented to date and co-host Erin Andrews said Tuesday's finalists were all deserving. "We could have given out three trophies tonight."