Watch CBS News

Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez on her grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s

Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez has had quite a year.

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, she medaled twice, winning gold in the team event and silver on the balance beam.

She went on to publish a book about her life called "I Got This: To Gold and Beyond," which became a New York Times best-seller.

And as if that weren't enough, Hernandez competed in –  and won – season 23 of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and just this month guest-starred in Disney Channel's "Stuck in the Middle."

But tragedy struck in November 2016 when her grandmother, Brunilda Hernandez, lost a battle to both cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

Now, Hernandez is partnering with the Alzheimer's Association for Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month to share her story and help bring attention to the memory-robbing disease that affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans.

CBS News spoke to Hernandez to talk about her relationship with her grandmother, the impact of Alzheimer's on her family, and her advice for others with a loved one living with the disease.

Tell me about your grandmother. What was your relationship like with her?

My family has always been very close. Ever since I was a kid everybody was always together, including my grandma. In the mornings, my mom would work and my grandma would help me get ready and would walk me to school. We were all so close to her.

When did she first get sick and how did that affect your relationship with her?

She started getting sick in mid-2016. I was doing a lot of competitions throughout the year and I wasn't home as much as I usually am. We'd hoped she would get better soon but we did see her spiral downward throughout the year. She had stomach cancer as well as Alzheimer's and the two hit pretty quickly.

Through the Olympics, I could feel that she was watching, and when I came back, the people who had worked with her created a little book for her of all the meets that I did with pictures and descriptions — that way she could go through it. That was really comforting to know that she saw what I did and that she was hopefully proud of it.

What were some of her initial symptoms of Alzheimer's?

She would ask the same questions over and over again. She asked me how my day was at least six times one day. I remember my brother and I didn't understand so we'd look at each other and give her different answers every time to see how she would react but as soon as we figured out what happened, it made sense as to why she kept asking these things.

Laurie Hernandez with her grandmother, Brunilda Hernandez Courtesy of Laurie Hernandez

How did your grandmother's illness affect your family and what was that like for you to watch?

She was my dad's mother and he's kind of the tough guy of the family so to see him so sad over it, which is completely understandable, that was really hard. It made us really grateful for the family we have now and making sure that we took in every moment.

When things were getting really bad, I was away on "Dancing with the Stars." My mom would come up [with me] pretty often, my brother's in college, my sister works, my dad works, so everyone was separated and that was hard because at times like that you definitely want to be together.

You found out about your grandmother's death while you were very much in the public light in the middle of your run on "Dancing with the Stars." What was that like for you?

When I did find out I got to fly home for the week. So the day after she had passed, I got to come home. I didn't know yet. Nobody had told me, but when I came home my dad sat me down with everybody and told me the news. I didn't cry at first. I don't think it hit me, really, just because I had been traveling so much I'd gotten used to not seeing her as much. So when they told me, I was in shock, I guess. And then a few days later, it hit me and of course it hit when the cameras were on, so that was definitely really hard. But everyone at "Dancing with the Stars," the producers and cast and everybody were really sweet. They had written a card sending all their prayers and there was a lot of support from everyone, so that made it a lot better.

What advice would you have for others who have a family member with Alzheimer's disease?

My advice would be to spend a lot of time with them and take in every moment because you never know when something can happen and so you don't want to have any regrets at the end.

What are some of the things you'd want to share about your grandmother, that you'd want the world to know about?

She was a firecracker. She had a pretty tough heart. The moments she was very sweet, it was adorable, but really she was usually the one who was very loud and the life of the house. She definitely radiated a lot of energy and I think my siblings and I got that from her.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.