Wendy Hilliard founded her namesake foundation in 1996 and since that time it has provided free gymnastics for thousands of inner city youth in NYC. In 1978, Wendy became the first African American gymnast to represent the United States in international competition and remained on the Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team a record-setting nine times; serving twice as National Team Captain. She was a four-time US National Team coach and her athlete, Aliane Baquerot Wilson, competed in the 1996 Olympics. In 2008, Wendy was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. She was the first African American and gymnast to become the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1995 and was the athlete representative for gymnastics to the United States Olympic Committee and served on the Executive Committee of USA Gymnastics for over ten years. Wendy has been a TV commentator for many sports and gymnastics events, including the Olympic Games. Closer to home, Wendy was the Director of Sports for NYC2012, the NYC Olympic Bid Committee and designed and directed the gymnastics center for Aviator Sports and Recreation in Brooklyn.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Detroit in the 1970s. My first sport was swimming until I saw Olympic gymnastics on TV and like most kids got excited and thought, “I want to do that too.” I begged my mother to sign me up for classes, but at the time there weren’t any gymnastics programs in the city of Detroit. There was a tumbling class at the local YMCA that I took, but we would have had to go to the suburbs to take gymnastics. As luck would have it, a few years later the Detroit Recreation Department hired four gymnastics coaches (led by the husband and wife team of Zina and Vladimir Mironov) from Kiev in the former Soviet Union. We had a team called the Detroit Metro Gymnasts and it became one of the top teams in the country in rhythmic gymnastics. I was the first black to make the national team and my teammate, Michelle Berube made two Olympic teams and all of a sudden gymnastics became a city sport. Looking back, it was funny because we used to train at the Kronk gym, which was a famous boxing gym. It was in the community and that’s how we started, and it didn’t cost too much. All our parents worked hard to support what we were doing.
If those Russian coaches hadn’t arrived when they did in Detroit I may have still eventually gotten involved in gymnastics, but certainly not at the level I did and I definitely would not have gotten into rhythmic gymnastics. At the time I began in rhythmic gymnastics it was just becoming an Olympic sport (1984 was the first time it was in the Olympics) and the Russians and Bulgarians were the best at rhythmic gymnastics. I remember there being a language barrier between the coaches and us, but it never got in the way of us understanding what they wanted from us.
I attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit (the same school as Diana Ross and John DeLorean). It was a big, public school in the heart of the city with about 4,000 students. After high school I went to Wayne State University where I studied Russian to help me communicate better with my coaches in the gym and during my travels and training abroad in Bulgaria, Russia and the Czech Republic (at the time the best gymnasts were from the Eastern Block countries and they all spoke Russian). I eventually moved to New York and finished college with honors at New York University. Afterwards I studied with Maggie Black, a renowned ballet teacher and after college decided to live in New York.
How is the gymnastics scene today different than it was when you grew up in Detroit?
Cost is the major thing. Gymnastics was always popular, but when Mary Lou Retton won the gold medal in 1984 the popularity shot up and all of a sudden it seemed like every little girl wanted to be a gymnast. Interestingly, despite the surge in popularity, there used to be more places to learn gymnastics. Mainstream kids used to be able to participate in school and take classes at the local Y, which were affordable for the masses. Then little by little the gymnastics programs in schools and the Y’s began to disappear so gymnastics became more of an exclusive and expensive sport.
Why did you create the Wendy Hilliard Foundation?
After I finished NYU I was coaching rhythmic gymnastics at the United Nations School, although I loved it the environment just wasn’t the same as the one I grew up with. Some of it was dealing with parents and privilege, which I wasn’t used to and part of it was my desire to bring gymnastics back to the grassroots and to offer it in a community setting because that was how I learned the sport. At the time (1996), I was also president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and that role inspired me to help others get into sports without having to spend so much money.
What do you tell parents who believe their child is destined to be the next Olympic champion?
The first thing I always ask parents is does your child really really want to do gymnastics? Anything on a high level, and especially in gymnastics where students have to learn technique at a young age, the parents are going to have to be into it, but it won’t matter if the kids are not in love with the sport. Second, the coaches will let the parents know if the kids have the skills to advance. If a parent is the only one who thinks their child has talent it makes the situation tough.
Parents have to be willing to take a back seat. When I was starting out in Detroit, Zina and Vladimir brought with them the Russian way in which parents were simply not allowed in the gym when the kids were training.
I’ve seen so much pressure from parents over the years, it’s truly amazing and an unfortunate trend. Gymnastics is such a long road and there are so many factors that can influence whether a gymnast will succeed – will they be injured, how is their body going to grow, etc. that make it difficult to plan that far in advance. Parents can set the wheels in motion by exposing their kids to a lot of things including gymnastics, but in the end it’s the child that has to do the work so, your child has to really, really love it because if they don’t they won’t go far.
Going back to when I was first learning gymnastics I don’t allow parents in the gym. I don’t need them watching everything. I tell them, you don’t sit in your kid’s math class, so sitting in their gymnastics class is not helpful. It’s better if they leave the gym and when they return ask their kids if they had fun. It’s a cultural thing that’s pervasive in many sports, but it’s important for kids not to have their parents around all the time.
Parents should never force gymnastics (or any sport) on their kids and never insist that they work with a coach that is too advanced for them. There are different coaches for kids when they are start and when they become an elite athlete and kids should not be working with an elite coach too soon. More than likely the relationship won’t work and burnout is possible. At a young age it’s important to find a coach who creates a structured environment and teaches basic techniques but also makes the sport fun.
There may be no match to the feeling of competing in the Olympics and representing your country, what things about your current position get you excited?
Working with the kids is totally joyful as is being able to offer the sport of gymnastics to so many kids who are excited to be in the gym. I’ve had so many people who thank me and say they wouldn’t have been able to afford to get their child involved in gymnastics.
I love giving kids the opportunity. We teach the kids a work ethic and how to focus. Even something as seemingly simple as a cartwheel takes a lot of repetition, focus and an attention to detail. Learning those things will help them in many other aspects of their lives. For those who can take the sport to another level it is thrilling to see them progress. The kids are happy because they’re learning to master skills and we’re excited because we are changing lives.
What challenges does the Foundation face to accomplish its goals? What are the particular challenges of doing what you do in NYC?
Space, money and space and money. Gymnastics take a lot of time to do well so as our kids get better and better we need even more gym time. Our goal is to have our own facility that could function 24/7.
Gymnastics is not thought of as an inner city sport. Do you find yourself competing with other sports that kids may be more interested in?
Interestingly, we don’t. The kids really want to do gymnastics. What kid doesn’t want to do a flip? We certainly don’t have a shortage of kids who want to do gymnastics in the city, mainly because there aren’t many places where they can do it and the places that do exist are expensive. Gymnastics is one of those sports that most kids should do — learning how to be upside down and to control your body will help kids in other sports.
How much did Gabby Douglas’ 2012 Gold Medal help generate more interest among inner-city girls?
A lot. It was major. No doubt about it. To have a role model is huge and it’s not just about Gabby’s gymnastics. The other part of her story is that she didn’t come from a family with a lot of wealth. Gabby broke two barriers – there had never been a female African American Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics and there had been very few who had to fight through the financial circumstances that she had to deal with. So, she has had a great impact. Once you see someone do it just opens the floodgates and the amount of kids in our program is testament to that.
What does gymnastics offer kids that other sports do not?
Very few sports offer the same level of overall conditioning that gymnastics does. Most kids look at gymnasts on TV and assume they do lots of weight training, but they don’t. They become strong by doing the sport and getting their bodies in shape. Gymnastics is also an individual sport so kids can develop at their own pace. They develop discipline similar to those who practice martial arts and classical music. Also, because many start at such a young age the skills they learn tend to stay with them for their entire lives.
What makes you proudest of your Foundation?
That we’ve been able to bring the sport to so many people. Over the years worked with over 15,000 youth!
What do you look for when you hire a coach to work with kids?
The first thing a coach always has to have is a strong gymnastics background. This is not a sport that someone can learn by reading a book. I look to see where they’ve trained who they’ve been trained by. Finally, they must love the sport and have the ability to pass that love on to their students.
What was the best advice you got from a coach?
My coach Zina was adamant about making sure that routines made sense and had meaning – she was a master chorographer. But that applies across the board. There is a history to our sport that sometimes gets lost when athletes only concentrate on tricks – but it is also an art form. Bela Karolyi is a master at motivation! He came to one of our events and really got the kids excited. I have not met them, but the coaches of the 4 time Men’s World Gymnastics Champion, Kōhei Uchimura, are incredible. Uchimura is one of the best ever and it has been inspiring to be able to see him compete.
You must have great stories from your years working with kids. Tell us about one that inspired you.
Alexis Page is someone who came to us when she was 7 years old. Her mother was a single parent living in Harlem. Alexis loved the sport and made the 2½ hour commute back- and-forth to Aviator Sports every day for about six years. Alexis eventually made the national team. Once she did that we had to raise money to cover her training and travel costs to make sure she could stay on the team. Alexis won national and international gold medals and is now studying at Howard University.
What is your favorite sports venue in New York City and why?
I love the Armory Track and Field Center in Washington Heights and of course the HCZ Armory in Harlem. Anywhere where kids are really training in sports because they love it and not where it cost a lot of money to do sport.
What is your most treasured sports possession?
I don’t have something material that I cling to, rather I treasure my overall knowledge of sport. Maybe the one thing I protect is a photo of Zina and I as she passed away a few years ago. I actually saved some of my competitive leotards and the photo was a hit on a Throwback Thursday on Facebook.
Best sports memory?
I remember competing in Shanghai in 1986. It was the first international rhythmic meet held in China and I remember walking in the streets and so many people recognized me from the televised competition. Overall the opportunity to travel the world and represent my country in sport will always stay with me.
Favorite place you have competed?
I love Barcelona; it was my final international competition.
Favorite sports book?
Martina by Martina Navratilova and George Vecsey (May 12, 1985) also I just finished Unfavorable Odds, by my friend Kim Hamilton Anthony and of course – I am a Gymnast by Jane Feldman- that features one of my WHF team gymnasts.
Favorite sports movie?
I love documentaries about athletes. Any film by Nancy Beffa and the late Bud Greenspan will be on the top of my list.
For more information on the Wendy Hilliard Foundation go to www.whfny.org
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