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[In My Lifetime] Wendy Hilliard Remembers Pushing the Doors Open for Black Gymnasts

Wendy Hilliard in 1984

I was the first Black rhythmic gymnast on a U.S. national team. I made many friends and was fortunate to have great mentors, but in 1983, I was denied a spot on the World Championship Group Routine because a coach thought I “stood out” too much for the synchronized routine. That was code language for me being the only Black person on the team. They selected girls for the World Championship who were ranked lower than me. It was not fair and I was devastated.

Gymnastics was and still is the center of my world. Tumbling in my backyard as a little girl was my first humble attempt at gymnastics. After years of hard work, practice, and dedication, I had earned my place on that team.

There I was standing in a room with my teammates and coaches in Colorado Springs, Col., and I didn’t know what to do, so I called my parents back home in Detroit. They rejected that immediately and made phone calls and sent faxes to challenge the decision. Eventually, U.S.A. Gymnastics reversed the decision and then selected girls based on National Championship rankings. That’s how I got to my third World Championship.

I was often the only Black person around. When I travelled to Poland in the Cold War years, I was probably the only Black person in the whole country. It can be lonely sometimes being the only one.

Wendy Hilliard. Credit: AETNA

Wendy Hilliard. Credit: AETNA

That’s part of the reason why I’m so proud that over the past 20 years, my foundation (the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation) has served over 17,000 urban youth and counting, providing them with free and low cost access to high quality gymnastics training. For many kids, cost is a barrier to entry for gymnastics and other sports. I’m committed to making sure kids from under-resourced communities have the opportunity to have gymnastics in their lives.

I love what I call the “Gabby Effect.” Whenever Gabby Douglas wins a new title or has an amazing routine, we get a bump in registrants. People like her and Simone Biles show kids today what they can do and the levels they can achieve if they put in the work. It takes serious training and sacrifice to be an elite athlete. I was in London and Rio for the [2012 and 2016] Olympics and I was so proud of their grace, professionalism, and talent. I’m also proud of the kids in my foundation and grateful for our supporters who choose to invest in excellence.

— As told to Demetria Irwin

The Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation is hosting the fourth annual Harlem Gymnastics Invitational from Feb. 17-19 at the Harlem Armory in New York City. Click here for more information.

Click here to read more from EBONY’s “In My Lifetime” series.


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