As Nico Hernandez stood on the podium, the highest podium, to accept his boxing gold medal for the 2011 and 2012 Junior Olympics, a thought hit him.
Let’s eliminate the “Junior.”
“Being on that podium made me really happy,” said Hernandez, a North High graduate who just turned 20. “I’ve always watched the big Olympics on TV and this made me want to go there and medal.”
Well, it could happen. Hernandez is close to making his ultimate dream come through. He needs to finish in the top three in one of three remaining international qualifying events — in Buenos Aires (March 8-20), Sofia, Bulgaria (May 13-22) or Baku, Azerbaijan (June 7-19). Once he gets a top-three finish, he’s on the U.S. team for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
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“Before the Junior Olympics, I didn’t plan on making the Olympic team ever,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, who won the Olympic trials last month, is a light flyweight. Which means it would take almost two of him to make a heavyweight.
He fights at 108 pounds, which is basically three dinners at Wendy’s. He keeps his slim figure by working out six days a week and by following a minimalist diet that includes lots of water.
I’m pumped, I’ve been working my whole life for this. I never pictured myself being in the Olympics. It’s a crazy thought thinking I’m going to be in Rio.
He is trained by his father, Lewis, a truck mechanic who runs the Northside 316 Boxing Club near 18th and Market. Nico Hernandez got the boxing bug when he was 9 after watching his uncle, Mike, in some bouts.
“I’m pumped, I’ve been working my whole life for this,” Hernandez said. “I never pictured myself being in the Olympics. It’s a crazy thought thinking I’m going to be in Rio.”
Maybe crazy, maybe not.
Israel Villa, the co-owner of Villa’s Boxing Club in Wichita, used to box against Hernandez’s dad. He’s not shocked by Nico’s accomplishments.
“He’s got that raw, natural talent,” Villa said. “He’s gifted. From watching him over the years, he’s someone who makes boxing look easy. He has great defense and a good offense. For his size, he hits pretty hard. I know because I’ve sparred with him before.”
Hernandez grew up playing soccer and ran cross country at North. He’s always been small and at 5-foot-4, his athletic options are limited. Boxing suits him.
“He was always pretty advanced in everything he did or tried,” Lewis Hernandez said of his son. “He was a kid who was riding a bicycle at three years old with no training wheels, walking at seven months.”
Even so, Lewis said he did a double take when Nico asked him about boxing.
“Boxing is a sport that takes so much discipline and has no room for doubt,” Lewis said. “There’s no in-between, no straddling the fence. You take it seriously or you don’t do it at all.”
Eventually, a reluctant Lewis took Nico to a boxing gym when he was nine.
“He got in there and got his nose bloodied a little,” Lewis said. “But the whole time, he never quit. I was trying to discourage him, but when it was all said and done he had fought hard the whole time against three or four other kids.”
There was no turning back.
“I know a lot of people nowadays want to see MMA, they want to see the street-fighting aspect,” Nico said. “I wrestled some in high school, so I thought about getting into that once or twice. But a lot of them can’t really do the boxing part. That’s the sweet science and it takes a lot of work to learn. I’m learning things new about boxing every single day.”
Hernandez has had more than 100 fights already, most of those in national and international competition. In 2013, he was a national Golden Gloves champion and he finished second in 2015.
“Nico might look like he’s that strong, but he is,” Villa said. “He packs a punch and he’s fast.”
It’s dedication, though, that sets Hernandez apart. In his bio he says, “I never give up” is his greatest asset in the ring.
“Nico doesn’t do anything halfway,” Villa said. “He gives everything, 200 percent. He’s also a very humble kid so you never hear him talk back or anything. He’s quiet. But they say you’ve got to watch out for the quiet ones. Well, watch out for Nico in the ring.”
Hernandez’s favorite boxer is Andre Ward, who won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics before going on to a professional boxing career as a super middleweight. Actually, he first said he was his favorite boxer before being prodded to pick someone else.
The confidence is there. The ability is there. The training is there. The experience is there. The sacrifice is there.
“Nico’s dad has worked a lot of extra hours, different hours, just to be able to afford to get Nico into tournaments,” Villa said. “But with his skill level, I could see Nico winning an Olympic medal.”
The team is there, too.
Nico and Lewis will be difficult to stop.
“Coaching your son can be difficult, but it also has its advantages,” Lewis Hernandez said. “You know what makes your kid tick, so I know how to get him motivated. I know how to calm him down. We bump heads sometimes in training, which is natural, but when we get in the ring he has 100-percent faith in me and I have 100-percent faith in him. We know what it takes to win.”