It has been an emotional for Laurie Hernandez.
Just days after finding out that her grandmother Brunilda Hernandez – who had been battling Alzheimer’s – had died, the Olympian had to go out and perform two dances live on Dancing With the Stars Monday. “It was kind of a tough week,” Hernandez, 16, told PEOPLE backstage after the live show.
Hernandez’s grandmother died Wednesday evening, but the news was kept from the young gymnast until Friday. “I just want to protect and guide her through it, but I’m not going to shelter her from a situation that is hers,” said her pro dancer partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy, who had been told that Wednesday night and helped decide to ultimately tell her the news. “It’s hers to face and hers to grow from and hers to understand as well. She needs to take time and understand it.”
“But the reality is that her grandma was so proud of her and as a person at that age, I think the most peace you get is by seeing what you leave behind and the legacy you leave behind and to see your granddaughter represent her country and her family and herself with so much dignity and pride and strength is an absolutely incredible feeling for her grandma,” continued the dancer, referencing Hernandez’s recent gold medal win at the Rio Olympics.
Chmerkovskiy said he’s sure Hernandez’s grandmother is “in a better place and watching down and just as proud.” He added: “The lesson is to cherish every moment. Don’t take things for granted and don’t forget that it’s always about people. It’s not about the gold medals or the trophies or the money. It’s about the people that you cherish and can share incredible moments with.”
And while Hernandez was visibly emotional behind the scenes during the video package that played before her first dance Monday, she says she is grateful she was able to rely on her partner for emotional support. “He actually covered my ears while the package was playing. I still cried a little bit, but without him I would have probably not been able to dance as well as I did today – or even dance at all,” says Hernandez, who scored a perfect 30 from the judges for their foxtrot.
By the time she came back out for her trio dance with Chmerkovskiy and his brother Maksim, the pro appeared to be in better spirits. “When you have family with you, it gives you extra energy. It was like I gained two brothers this week,” she told reporters of rehearsing – and receiving a second perfect score – with the Chmerkovskiys for their samba. “Tonight was a little hard. Some times you just don’t know what to say. So instead of saying anything, I danced my way through it.”
Hernandez has been announced as a finalist on the reality dance competition and will vie for the Mirrorball Trophy next Monday and Tuesday on ABC.