Wendy Hilliard saw the need to diversify the sport of gymnastics and took it upon herself to fill the gap in her adopted home of New York. The Detroit native, who herself made history in the sport as the first Black rhythmic gymnast to represent the US on an international stage, launched the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation with that mission in mind.
Since its inception in 1996 at the Harlem Armory, the nonprofit has served close to 25,000 urban youth with free or low-cost gymnastics classes and training. WHGF, which opened a second location in Detroit in 2016, also has three competitive gymnastics teams, and some of its students have gone off to become international gymnastics performers.
Hilliard’s impressive resume includes competing not only on the Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team nine times, but in three World Championships and the 1984 Olympic Trials. When she retired from the sport in 1988, she went on to become a four-time U.S. National Team coach and the first black woman and first gymnast to serve as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
After a three-year hiatus due to COVID, her foundation will be hosting its 8th Harlem Gymnastics Invitational from Feb. 24 to 26 at the Harlem Armory on West 142nd Street. “People don’t get to see live gymnastics much,” said Hilliard. “It’s free to the community, so you don’t have to pay to watch and that’s always special. And it’s bringing people to Harlem, which is really exciting.”
You started taking gymnastics lessons at 12. When did you know the sport would become your career?
You don’t really know that. You just do gymnastics and do the best you can. I made the national team when I was 17.
What was your training regime like?
When I got older and started training more seriously, we were training four or five days a week, probably about four hours of practice. And then I would practice on my own.
What did it mean to you to be the first black rhythmic gymnast to represent the US? Did you realize the significance?
Not really. Well, I made the national team. I mean, you don’t think about it because it’s individual. I just wanted to make the team. It was exciting, but that wasn’t the main goal of it.
You were once denied a spot on the World Championship group routine team. Can you explain that?
For the World Championships, [in Stroudsburg, France in 1983] we were doing a group routine, which was a synchronized routine with six girls. And so when you do that, they bring all the best gymnasts from across the country who are at the Olympics training center for probably about six weeks or so. And you basically train with the other coaches and the other girls. But they split you into two teams, an A team and a B team, so you kind of know who the top girls are. I was on the A team, but then when they made the announcement, they didn’t announce me. Everybody was really quite shocked because they really thought I should be on it.
And then, I just basically told the coach, because it was kind of shocking. I had been on the World Championship team before. So when I asked her how come I wasn’t chosen, she’s like, “Oh, Wendy, what are we going to do with you? You stand out too much.” And I was just like, “Wow. Really? I don’t know what I can do about that.” I called my parents and they’re like, “We got to challenge this.” They probably sent a telefax at the time to USA Gymnastics and they changed it. They made the results go by the results from the National Championships.
When did you move to New York?
I moved to New York City in 1986. I was at college at NYU. Two of my coaches moved to California and the Detroit program continued but was not as strong. So I finished training, but still competed for two more years. And then I retired in 1988.
How did the foundation come about? Explain it in your own words.
It was really a situation where it was a combination. So I had been a national team coach for about four years at the time. My gymnast was gonna be going off to the Olympics and so she was training with the Olympic team. I was coaching in New York at the United Nations School. But the sport wasn’t like it was when I was around. My team had more black girls on it because we were all from Detroit. But the sport had gotten so expensive. And I just wanted to do grassroots. I was finishing my tenure as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, so I understood more about advocacy and raising money. There were a lot of athletes that were taking strides so it inspired me to go out on my own. And then the Olympic committee was reaching out to organizations to provide funding for emerging sports, which rhythmic gymnastics was.
What is the Invitational like?
We’re going to have probably 30 of our team members compete, so it’s really exciting for them. The parents all volunteer. It’s a little bit tough because we haven’t done it for three years. We use the whole facility, which is 50,000 square feet.
What are your future plans?
To keep expanding. Like right now, I’m out at Rutgers. We came out because this university has the first HBCU gymnastics team. And hopefully one of our alumni athletes is going to go there, so we’re really excited that she can compete collegiately. But long term, my goal is to make sure there are facilities in urban areas. We have the programming, but the key is being able to have a space right in the community. And we’ve had a great partnership with the [nonprofit] Harlem Children’s Zone that has shown us over the last 10 years what you can achieve when you invest in our kids.
For more information on the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, please visit www.wendyhilliard.org