Conversations With Wendy Hilliard, US Hall of Fame Rhythmic Gymnast
Wendy Hilliard was the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to represent the United States in international competitions. In 2008, Wendy was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Since 1996, when she founded the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, Hilliard has provided free and low-cost gymnastics to more than 15,000 urban youth in New York City. In 2016, she expanded her gymnastics programs to Detroit.
THE PRESS: What inspired you to start the Wendy Hilliard Foundation?
Wendy Hilliard: I was inspired after I started coaching at the United Nation School which is great. But there weren’t many black kids in rhythmic gymnastics. I grew up in Detroit, so our team was one of the few teams with a lot of black athletes, but I thought maybe things would change after a while. It really didn’t. After I finished my term as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, I had the confidence to finally try to do my own thing. Looking back on my team in Detroit, everyone on the team wanted to be there. It wasn’t about whether your parent could afford to pay or not. So, I wanted to create that same environment.
[During practice, there are no parents watching in the gym]
My parents saw me for the first time at the national championship. They were never allowed in our gym. This allows the kids and coaches to focus. Gymnastics is a sport you have to love to succeed. You’ve have to do a lot of drills. So the kids have to really like being here. Especially my team kids, they’re here three days a week. They practice all summer and all year round.
TP: Can you tell us about the challenges you faced setting up the training facility in Detroit that were different from your experience opening in New York.
WH: Well, I went back home to Detroit to attend an event called the Detroit Homecoming. The started it about five years ago with the goal to call on people who grew up in Detroit and became successful in other places to bring us all together to invest in the city. Dan Doctoroff, who was one of the foundation’s big supporters was speaking at the event. They discussed their plans for building up the downtown area with big sports stadiums and they’re like “what are y’all doing to help the kids that have been struggling from Detroit? So that’s really what my inspiration was.
Detroit is challenging because I’m not there all the time. But I have people there, like my old teammates. I knew what their training was so I felt very confident and the program has been great. We are just being taped to be a part of the citywide initiative called the GOAL Line. They’re going to be busing kids to a community center after-school and we’re going to be providing the gymnastics. It’s really cool because it’s free to the kids.
There are not as many kids in the Detroit program as in New York so I had to get used to that. Gymnastics is expensive, the equipment is expensive, the coaches are expensive. So finding the right partner is key. We found the right partner in Harlem Children Zone here in New York and no we’re partnering with the city of Detroit. Our model works.
TP: In a sport that traditionally lacks diversity, Gabby Douglas & Simone Biles are great inspirations for young minorities and both have a voice on social issues. Specifically, Gabby’s been an advocate against bullying and Simone has shared her personal story with sexual assault. What more can be done to increase diversity and opportunity?
WH: The biggest barrier is cost. It’s expensive. And to make it to the Gabby & Simone levels it’s a big investment/ That’s what I want my program to be affordable so more of the community can be a part of it.
I dealt with racism first hand when the coaches and judges were picking the 1983 national team. I was at the top of my team but they didn’t pick me. The head coach told me, “Wendy, you stand out too much.” I had to take the risk of either walking away or fighting. So I fought for my place. USA Gymnastics reversed the decision and made the team selection go by rank order going into the National Championships.
But it taught me that one you had to fight for your sport. That’s part of why I fight to make sure that more minority kids can do gymnastics. And having role models like Gabby and Simone is huge. As soon as Gabby won, everybody was calling me. All of a sudden we had waiting lists of over 100 people. And Simone is an exceptional athlete, period. She is on another level across the board.
TP: We’ve recently seen athletes like Serena Williams speak out against sexism in tennis and Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing battle with the NFL. Do you think it’s important for athletes to use their platform to speak out on social issues?
WH: Generally, yes. It’s important. It’s important in our society to speak up. We have a long history of doing this. It’s been 50 years since we’ve seen athletes like Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali doing the same thing. It’s not a new trend. Everything is magnified even more now because of social media. Athletes that use their platform to speak out have to have confidence because they know it bears a risk.
With Serena, I think she was treated unfairly. In the finals, there should be a higher tolerance. I’m grateful for her for standing up and there’s a bit more maturity that she has now that she’s a mom.
TP: The theme of your annual gala is ‘Going for the Gold”. Can you share some highlights from this year’s event? What does ‘Going for the Gold’ mean to you?
WH: At this year’s gala, attendees were treated to performance by the WHGF’s competition team members ages 7 to 17. Maurice DuBois of CBS-2 News served as the event’s Master of Ceremonies and Olympic Champions Nadia Comaneci & Bart Conner were presented with the Champions Award. Going for the Gold is really the core of the programming. Our funders are investing in excellent gymnastics. So, I’m grateful I have a great staff in place to make sure the lessons don’t slip because planning this event each year is hard. It’s key to have so many really great coaches that believe in our mission here. We have a support system because sometimes our kids need extra social services or dealing with issues at home. My team knows that we have a certain mission beyond teaching gymnastics. I think it’s amazing.