Wendy Hilliard, Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation

Wendy Hilliard

Inspiring The Next Generation

Editors’ Note

Wendy Hilliard (wendyhilliard.org) has long been a major force in women’s, Olympic, and community sports. She was the first Black rhythmic gymnast to represent the United States globally, and she remained on the Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team a record-setting nine times, serving twice as National Team Captain. Hilliard competed in three World Championships and the 1984 Olympic Trials, and traveled to over 15 foreign countries. She was a four-time U.S. National Team Coach and coached 1996 Olympian Aliane Baquerot Wilson. She is a Master of Sport, an honor for developing an Olympic athlete. In 2008, Hilliard was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. In 1995, Hilliard became the first Black woman and the first gymnast to become the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the leading organization for women’s sports issues. Hilliard’s own nonprofit organization, the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, of which she is the Founder and CEO, has provided free gymnastics for 25,000 urban youth in New York City since 1996, and expanded to her hometown of Detroit in 2016. In 2011, Hilliard was awarded the Rings of Gold from the U.S. Olympic Committee for her work helping children develop their Olympic dreams. She was the athlete representative for gymnastics to the U.S. Olympic Committee and served on the executive committee of USA Gymnastics for over ten years. Hilliard has been a TV commentator for many sports and gymnastics events, including the Olympic Games for NBC Sports. She has performed on numerous television shows and tours with the world’s top gymnasts, and also performed on Broadway in Candide. Hilliard was Director of Sports for NYC2012, New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As a member of the NYC2012 Senior Staff, her responsibilities included overseeing all of the sports and athlete matters, including over 2,000 Olympians and Paralympians worldwide that supported the bid. Hilliard was instrumental in bringing several international events to New York City including the Freestyle Wrestling World Championships held at Madison Square Garden, the Archery World Championships, the Fencing World Cup, and was the lead in developing the New York City Triathlon, which is now a sold-out annual event. In 2006, she designed, programmed, and directed the Gymnastics and Rock Climbing Center for Aviator Sports and Recreation, a multimillion-dollar, multi-sport complex in Brooklyn, New York. Hilliard currently serves on the board of the Armory Foundation as well as The advisory boards of Power Play NYC and Black Women in Sports. She was a founding member of the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, Women in Sports and Events (WISE), and Antigravity, an international performance company. Hilliard studied Russian and Physical Education at Wayne State University and graduated from New York University with honors.

Wendy Hilliard

Wendy Hilliard during her days competing as a top
USA rhythmic gymnast

Will you highlight your career journey in gymnastics?

I grew up in Detroit, where there weren’t opportunities to take gymnastics. After traveling to the suburbs for gymnastics classes, my mom convinced the Detroit Recreation Department to hire the Soviet (Ukraine) coaches working at the Jewish Community Center. Drs. Vladimir and Zina Mironov became the head coaches of the new Detroit Recreation Department Gymnastics Program, and Roza Litva and Mike Freidan later joined them. It was a ground-breaking achievement – an urban, low-cost gymnastics program led by highly trained expert coaches. Looking back, I laugh at the irony that my team in the city was so good that girls from the suburbs started coming to Detroit to join our team.

In 1978, with the advocacy of U.S. head coach Maria Bakos, I became the first black athlete to make the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics Senior National Team. I spent nine years on the National Team and competed in three World Championships (1979, 1981, and 1983). After competing, I served as chair of the Athletes’ Council of USA Gymnastics, the USA Gymnastics Vice President for Rhythmic Gymnastics, and an athlete representative to the U.S. Olympic Committee. I also served as the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1995 to 1996 – the first Black and first gymnast to hold that position – and was also an Olympic sportscaster.

In 1996, I founded the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation and started my journey of making gymnastics equitable and accessible for all.

What has made the sport so special for you?

Gymnastics is an incredible sport with lifelong benefits. I was able to travel the world and make international friends. Gymnasts must possess a strong work ethic and self-discipline to succeed. It’s a sport that pushes you to be your best self on and off the mat. In addition, through gymnastics, I could take advantage of numerous performance opportunities with the world’s top gymnasts and perform on Broadway.

You were the first Black rhythmic gymnast to represent the United States globally. Will you discuss this experience?

At the time, I was working hard to make the National Team. Maria Bakos had to push for me because having a Black make the team was groundbreaking. I was unaware of any of this then, and becoming the first Black to represent the sport was the result. I would be challenged before the 1983 World Championships when the coaches did not want me on the team because “I stood out too much.” That was a fight my parents fought with the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. They, in turn, overruled the coaches’ decision and selected the World Team based on the rankings from the National Championships. That experience made me an advocate for athletes’ rights, which I continue to this day. Olympic Champions Dominque Dawes, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Biles have inspired countless girls of color to pursue gymnastics. Still, the actual barrier is the cost of the sport and access to gymnastics programs. Through my journey and experiences, I hope to lead and inspire the next generation of gymnasts and leaders and instill the confidence that I had at that age to the youth of my Foundation.

What was your vision for creating the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, and how do you define its mission?

I like to think of the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation as the HBCU of gymnastics. When I started the Foundation, I envisioned a program to provide improved physical and emotional health for low-income children. The reality is that gymnastics is an expensive sport, and gymnasts primarily train in private gymnastics clubs that are maintained by parents paying the cost of the training, facility, travel, uniforms, competition fees, hotel fees (for the coaches and their gymnasts, and families) and the list goes on. The Foundation’s mission is to break down those barriers to entry and show these young athletes that their futures in gymnastics and beyond are limitless.

Wendy Hilliard, shares gymnastics knowledge with members
of her WHGF program in New York City at the Harlem Armory

Will you provide an overview of the work of the Foundation?

The Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation offers gymnastics classes for youth from preschool through age 17 at two locations in Harlem, New York, and Detroit, Michigan. The Community Gymnastics Program introduces gymnastics and a beginner’s class. The intermediate class is an invitation-only steppingstone for our pre-team and team program that adjusts students to a more extended gymnastics practice. The reality of the sport is that it isn’t as diverse as it should be, and it can be expensive and time-consuming. Offering gymnastics in urban centers like Harlem and Detroit is essential because it’s an excellent time for these young individuals to be exposed to the sport when they may not be otherwise. Through our programs, we have trained national and international champions, and I look forward to continuing our work for generations to come.

With the many impacts and accomplishments of the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, are you able to take moments to reflect and appreciate what the Foundation has achieved?

Yes. My purpose and life’s mission are to help provide access and opportunities to kids. Gymnastics is a remarkable sport, but it all goes back to giving our students the access and resources they deserve. I think the Foundation has done a great job providing high-caliber training to students without the constraints of high costs.

What advice do you offer to young girls pursuing their dream of being a professional gymnast?

Push yourself to be the best. It can be difficult, and it’s easy to get discouraged, but keep going, put yourself first, stay determined, and always show up – which can be the hardest part. Be proud of yourself for your small accomplishments, as those deserve to be celebrated.