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Hall of Famer Wendy Hilliard Is Raising Up the Young, Gifted and Black Future of Gymnastics

The Motor City native and U.S. national team’s first Black rhythmic gymnast has empowered more than 25,000 Black and brown youth across New York City and Detroit.
Wendy Hilliard

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

Detroit native and U.S. gymnastics Hall of Famer Wendy Hilliard is used to challenging the limitations of what people perceive a gymnast to be. She refuses to be boxed in. Hilliard made history in 1978 when she became the first Black rhythmic gymnast to represent the U.S. national team. Then, she made history again in ’95, as the first Black woman (and gymnast) to become president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the leading organization for women’s sports issues. Now, the New York–based, groundbreaking athlete is setting her sights on furthering the legacy of the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, which empowers more than 25,000 Black and brown youth across some of the most economically diverse cities in the world.

Hilliard was born in Detroit, a city injected with rich Black American cultural history. Motor City, aka Motown, served as the headquarters of Hitsville U.S.A., a Black-owned label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958 that largely invented the Motown sound and pushed forward the racial integration of popular American music. Detroit was also the very last stop on the Underground Railroad, before crossing over the Canadian border to a new life for freedom seekers. Hilliard nearly glows when she talks about her city, and it’s easy to understand why.

“We are very proud, whether we’re from the city or the suburbs. I was coming up in the early ’80s, and Detroit was really going through it. At the same time, for most of my life, I had a Black mayor, Black people were running the city. Most white people had left Detroit in the ’70s,” she says, referencing the “white flight” that occurred in Detroit following the ’67 Redlining Riots. “So if you ask Detroiters from that time, we just have this confidence. We’re very confident in what we’re able to achieve, because of the adults and examples we saw around us when we were growing up.”

Though there weren’t a ton of options for hopeful gymnasts at the time, Hilliard found a local YMCA in the suburbs and started tumbling, flipping and working the bar and the beams. It was a foundational jump start, but very white—her mom wanted something more diverse. So they went back home, to the recreation department in Detroit, where Hilliard found herself on a local team with more girls like her, and they quickly became renowned across the city. “It was kind of funny because our team became so good that girls from the suburbs started coming to Detroit to be on our team,” Hilliard says. “Seriously. I was so fortunate, because we were the best, we had the training and I wasn’t the only Black person on the team.”

She quickly caught the eye of the late Maria Bakos, the iconic former national head coach for the rhythmic gymnastics team. Bakos, a former Hungarian champion herself, fought for Hilliard to have a well-deserved spot on the national team in the late 1970s.

“I didn’t realize this, but it was a big deal for her to put a Black girl on the national team,” Hilliard says. “Everyone’s like, What are you doing? And she was just adamant that she wanted me on the team. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but it was a big deal because I was the first Black person. I wasn’t really thinking about that. I just wanted to be the best athlete. I just wanted to practice and be the best. That’s what I focused on.”

Once she began traveling internationally for her training, she had to maintain that laser focus to push forward. Former coaches gave Hilliard Russian language lessons to help along the way, because a lot of the top coaches in the country were Russian and rhythmic gymnastics was very popular there.

“I’d be the one Black girl overseas, but I’m the one who knew how to speak Russian, which everyone thought was really funny. The only other Black women that I was competing with were from Cuba. So, yeah, and it was just me and the Cubans,” she recalls, laughing. “To go from Detroit to traveling internationally is a whole different thing. It’s kind of hard to describe, but if you want to do what you want to do—you just do it.”

Hilliard’s aware she literally changed the game of rhythmic gymnastics, but she’s also very grateful that an era of “firsts” for Black women in sports is hopefully coming to an end. She went on to compete on the national team a record nine times and was the national team captain twice. She also competed in three different world championships and the 1984 Olympic trials, before shifting to coaching the U.S. national team herself. She gained the honorable title of Master of Sport, given to coaches who develop Olympic athletes, like Aliane Baquerot Wilson, who Hilliard coached in ’96. She founded her nonprofit, the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation in ’96, coaching and shaping Black and brown gymnasts in New York City and Detroit, which has served more than 25,000 children to date.

In 2011 she was awarded the Rings of Gold from the U.S. Olympic Committee for “her work helping children develop their Olympic dreams.” Hilliard also served as the athlete representative for gymnastics to the U.S. Olympic Committee and on the executive committee of USA Gymnastics for more than 10 years. But today, she looks to the next generation of Black gymnasts, like Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, as very hopeful glimpses of the future. “To see Gabby, to see Simone … it was amazing. I mean, for my young girls to have role models like that? Even though you have these top athletes that are super bright, the grassroots gymnastics is still not very diverse. It just is not,” Hilliard says.

As a pillar in Black gymnastics history, Hilliard is always looking at the big picture of the sport—but she makes time to be grateful for the day-to-day moments and the intimate bonds she has made with her students.

“Last summer, I will tell you, I was going to the gym, and one of the grandmothers came in with a girl named Heaven. She was about 14 or 15 years old. And her grandmother told me, ‘I’ve been trying to get her here. This is the only thing that Heaven wants to do, and I’m just trying my best to keep her busy. The only thing she gets up for in the day is gymnastics.’ And let me tell you, I love making kids the best gymnasts they can be, but I also love working with kids that just love flipping and just love doing gymnastics,” says Hilliard.

When it comes to the legacy she will leave behind, it’s exceedingly clear Hilliard is focused on the young people coming up after her, especially the Black girls, that will continue to excel and push forward the entire industry. In other words, there is much, much more work to do.

“My legacy has to be to tell and show people in the system that young people need access to sports and Black girls, especially. The legacy of this work is giving girls confidence. I want my kids to be really strong individuals,” she says. “Gymnastics is hard. You have to realize why you work hard, that you have to work hard. I want the community to understand the importance of investing in our young people, and I want our young people to be able to take care of each other.” 


Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.