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Inspired by Kobe Bryant, can Hezly Rivera bring home gold for the USA?

It’s just all my hard work has been paying off. I’m so excited” – quipped the youngest gymnast to ever enter the halo surrounding Team USA gymnastics. Any guesses who might that be? The Target Centre reached a standstill when a little wisp of a girl named Hezly Rivera joined the US women’s roster en route to Paris. At just 16 years old, Hezly Rivera will be joining stars like Jade Carey, Suni Lee, Simone Biles, and Jordan Chiles in heading to the gleaming City of Love.

As a WOGA athlete, Rivera stands out not only for her young age but also as the only Latina on the team this year. Rivera draws inspiration from her first-generation immigrant parents from Latin America and NFL legend Kobe Bryant. His book has played a crucial role in shaping her own very own iteration of the robust “mamba mentality.” In a stunning turn of events, this Jersey native captured the gymnastics world’s attention by surpassing the legendary Simone Biles on the balance beam. What corelation does her ethnicity have to do with Bryant’s “Mamba mentality” though? For all you curious George’s out there, this one’s for you.

Hezly Rivera is a chip off the old block, courtesy of the late Kobe Bryant 

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In a recent interview with the New York Post, Hezly Rivera’s father Henry recalled how he gave his daughter a copy of Kobe Bryant’s book, “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” which served as an inspiration for Hezly. Henry elaborated on how Hezly’s hard work would always propel her towards success. “Her ticket was always outworking everyone. Her mentality was almost that ‘mamba mentality.’ If you want something – you go for it. It’s never going to be handed [to you], especially being a Latina.” The representation of minorities in a white-dominated sport has long been a topic of concern. It’s also noteworthy to add that Laurie Hernandez was the firebrand pioneer for Latinas in gymnastics.

Poll of the day

What do you think was the biggest factor in Hezly Rivera's success?

Kobe Bryant's Mamba Mentality

Her Ethnicity

Family Support

Personal Determination

Though this year we’re seeing two black athletes, one Asian and one latina on the forefront, make it onto the women’s gymnastics team. Have the tides finally shifted, making the sport more all-encompassing and homogeneously inclusive? On the grassroot level, the sport caters to predominantly white gymnasts. In Bryant’s book, he delved into the mindset and approach that made him the most dominant and revered player in the league. In it, he also demonstrated his tireless work ethic and how he wakes up at 4am to start his training, giving him an added advantage over everyone else. Taking forth tidbits from his learnings and experiences, this transmuted excellence was on display in the trials too. She scored a 27.975 point across two balance beam routines, tying with Paris alternate Joscelyn Roberson. 

Waving her community’s flag high and mighty, Laurie Hernandez even quipped about how her Puerto Rican heritage allowed her to grapple with fame and stardom. She spoke about how she managed to carve out a niche for herself in this Caucasian-dominated sport. “Being brought up by two Puerto Rican parents, it added some flair into everything I do”  – she says. “There’s a lot of passion. It narrows down to dance and music, and how I connect with that. I have parents who love movement.” – she further exclaims, speaking about the Ikigai that follows.

Hernandez was also, ironically enough, at a mere age of 16, the first Latina to make her way to women’s gymnastics in 30 years. Many other girls from minority communities have since then looked up to her for inspiration. She once said –“I get a lot of messages on social media coming in, like ‘I’m Afro-Latina too! We see you out there and it’s so cool to see someone who shares my culture!’.  
Recalling an interesting anecdote, she said -“I had one parent come up to me during a meet-and-greet who said ‘my daughter didn’t think she could do gymnastics, but she saw you, and now she thinks she can.’’ So, dare to dream? Yes, you can and you should. Let Hernandez and Rivera be your poster girls for success.

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Veering back to Rivera, she even bested 7 time Olympic medalist Biles and reigning all-around Olympic champion Suni Lee on the particular apparatus. USA gymnastics, made a tweet congratulating the young gymnast saying, “Hezly Rivera has joined one of the most exclusive clubs at USA Gymnastics! Since the inception of USAG’s Women’s National Teams in 1982, 5 gymnasts had been named to the Olympic Team as first-year-seniors. That number now stands at 6.” 

Other names in this category include Courtney McCool, Laurie Hernandez and Kyla Ross. Though a whole nation is proud of the Oradell teen, nobody is as proud as her father. Henry was seen crying and brushing away tears from his eyes during the end of the trials when Rivera came out holding a bouquet and wearing a medal after being declared an Olympian. He said in an interview later that his feelings were so complex he could not express them in words. In fact, he had to pinch his wife to make her believe the moment was real, too. 

Embracing her Latina heritage: Hezly Rivera’s journey to the top

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Henry Rivera is from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He later moved to finish his schooling from Union Hill high school in New Jersey and his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Stevens Institute of Technology in 2002. His wife, Heidy Ruiz, is also from Latin America. The couple have tried their best to make all their children aware of their Latin roots and are often seen celebrating cultural holidays together. Everything from the culture, music, and food has been passed down to Hezly and her brother Hanley, who wear their culture on their lapels like a badge of honor. As they should.

Henry makes his pride quite evident in everything he does. When USA Gymnasts made a Facebook post during Hispanic Heritage Month, he wrote in the comments, “I am proud to be Hispanic/Latino.” This year his daughter is taking her wealth of experience with her to the Olympics where she will represent them. This is no doubt a moment of deep pride for both parents. Though Hezly was not a favorite to qualify at the start of the trials, the disqualification of Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello because of an Achilles injury and Shilese Jones because of a knee injury made her go for the trials with all her heart. It’s definitely borne fruit.