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Women’s History Month: Interview with Wendy Hilliard

This March as we celebrate Women’s History Month we would like to celebrate our history at the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) and the incredible and powerful women who have served as our President’s and guided us.

Throughout the month we will feature a few of these wonderful women here on our S.H.E. Network, as well as all former WSF President’s on our Instagram.

We celebrate Wendy Hilliard:
Wendy Hilliard began gymnastics at the age of 12 and continues to promote the sport to inner-city children in Harlem, New York through the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation (WHGF). Wendy quickly excelled in rhythmic gymnastics and in 1978 earned a spot on the United States National Team, making her the first African American to represent Team USA in the sport. She went on to set a record through her nine-year team tenure, where she competed around the world and won both national and international gold medals.

Wendy served as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1995-1996 and continues to be an integral part of the WSF family. We caught up with Wendy to reminisce on her time as President at the Foundation, the importance of sports for young girls and the issue of race and breaking barriers for women in sports.

Question: You have been a part of the Women’s Sports Foundation family since the 90’s. What aspect of our work particularly resonates with you?

Answer: Everything! I have a passion for helping girls find opportunities to participate in sports. When I got to the Women’s Sports Foundation I was already an advocate for female athlete’s participation in sports but I learned much more when I came to the Foundation about the totality of what is needed.

When I came on board as President we were in the big throws of Title IX and a lot of my time was spent advocating on that issue. I was also President during the 1996 Olympics so I was able to witness the success of the women’s teams because of Title IX that year.

Question: In 1996, you founded the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation to provide the opportunity for more minorities to experience the sport of gymnastics. You have also mentored a few African American girls that have gone on themselves to make the National Team. What has that experience been like for you to help other girls make history?

Answer: You know, it’s really interesting. As an athlete or a coach you don’t think about that final part because the process takes so long. When someone starts gymnastics or any sport, I don’t think they go into it trying to make history–they just do what they have to do. It’s more ‘I am doing what I need to do to be the best in my sport’ because by the time you get to a high level you’ve already put in six, eight, ten years into your sport so [making history] is not usually a motivating factor.

When I started the WHGF I had just sent my athlete Aliane Baquerot to the 1996 Olympics and it occurred to me that even though I had been out of the sport, by this time for about eight years and I officially retired in 1998, that there still weren’t that many African Americans participating in gymnastics. My sport wasn’t growing. I grew up in Detroit and gymnastics was part of the Recreation Department, so I had the opportunity to be in an urban area and have a team that had black and white gymnasts and that was my experience when I was training. Eight years after I retired not much had changed at the national level so that’s why I really wanted to go back to grassroots.

From a coaching stand point I had reached the highest level which was very rewarding but also a boatload of work. If you’re going to put in that amount of time I just made the decision that I really wanted to provide gymnastics for hundreds of kids go back to the kind of experience that I had as an athlete.

Question: You were the first African American to represent the United States as a member of the Rhythmic Gymnastics Team and were a member for a record setting nine times. What was that experience like for you? Did you realize at the time the barriers you were breaking for women and especially for women of color?

Answer: Well I knew because there were just so few blacks in the sport, only me and my other team members back in Detroit but it hit me more intensely later into my career. There was no doubt when I first made the National Team it was a really, really big deal because no African American had done it, so you realize it then.

The second incident I realized was about five years later, so around 1983, when we were trying out for the group routine and this was going to be my third World Championship in the sport. Rhythmic was a very new sport in the U.S. and was not yet an Olympic sport so the development model was very Eastern European. My coach was from the Ukraine and all the top coaches were from the former Soviet Union.

As we developed the United States team, I think the coaches were under more pressure to have a team look more like the Eastern European teams which were winning everything. Their background and training were from the Soviet model, where the sport was very popular and they could choose if they wanted to have a team of all blonde hair and blue eyes.

When the U.S. was choosing the World Championship team I wasn’t selected and we had just been in the training camp for about six weeks and I was in the top group. That was when I realized the challenge I had. I went up to the head coach because everybody was in shock since they just thought for sure I was going to be on the World Team. The coach said ‘Wendy, what are we going to do with you? You stand out too much.’ And I was just like, wow! That was the big moment because it hadn’t occurred to me. I had already been on the team before. I had trained with the girls. I was in the top in the country. So, I told my parents and they said I should write USA Gymnastics about the situation. USA Gymnastics reversed the decision and made the team selection go by rank order going into the National Championships. That incident made me become an advocate.

Team selection is always a challenging situation for any sport but rarely do you just stand out because of your color. From that point on I really learned that you have to be an advocate and I truly saw that breaking barriers was hard. It was a tough situation.

Question: What was the most rewarding and most difficult part of competing in Rhythmic Gymnastics?

Answer: The difficult part was having to deal with the race aspect of it and also the fact that it seemed like the rest of the world was more appreciative of me “standing out” compared to the United States. When I would go to competitions in Europe, I would be much more appreciated for my style which was unique. There weren’t that many black rhythmic gymnasts in the United States, not only that, but there weren’t that many black rhythmic gymnasts in the world. So, the United States was really trying to go after a different model that was more European and yet the Europeans appreciated diversity. It was interesting that when I was competing internationally I would always score higher, yet I had the toughest time getting top scores in the U.S.

The rewarding part was no doubt traveling and seeing the world. Also working with my athletes through my Foundation and training them. For instance, Alexis Page was my athlete through the WHGF who started with me and went all the way to the US Rhythmic Gymnastics national team. She was really successful and that was rewarding for me to be able to, through my efforts and my foundation, take an athlete who had real challenges and take her to the world stage. She’s gone on to college now and she told me that her days of competition made a huge impact on her life. She still comes back to coach for us so that’s been especially rewarding.

Question: The Women’s Sports Foundation’s program Sports 4 Life works to increase the participation and retention of African-American and Hispanic girls, ages 11-18, in youth sports programs. As a part of the WSF and WHGF, do you see this need to be true and if yes, how so?

Answer: Yes, it’s true. There’s no doubt. First you need access to sport. That’s the most important part. Recruiting girls is different than boys and retaining girls takes extra effort as well. But, it is worth it! Dave Crenshaw runs Camp Dreamers in Washington Heights in NYC. The girls are primarily Hispanic and African American, and he does it right. He makes the effort to reach out to girls and their mom’s and has special basketball tournaments where the boys come to cheer on the girls. He also does a great job teaching leadership skills. It can be done – you just have to know how to do it right.

Another barrier for these girls is cost. This is why I do what I do. Gymnastics is a very expensive sport – but there are many girls who want to do it. Now there are incredible role models like Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. Former WSF President, Dominique Dawes, inspired those gymnasts. The key is to have it in the community and to break down the barriers to participation. What I never compromise on is the quality of the gymnastics through hiring great coaches.

There are also body issues with teenage girls. I work with a lot of teens and last year we took eight kids to the National Championships and half of my team was teenagers, so they’re getting ready to go to college–16, 17, 18 years old. They had been with me for years and I saw them become very strong athletes and strong individuals. These girls were great. They loved being part of the team and when they went away to college they came back and would jump right in as soon as they got home from college to work out and to help us teach.

The fact that they became athletes gave them confidence and not just confidence in their abilities but pride in their bodies. In gymnastics we wear leotards so you have to have confidence. I saw that first hand. It’s very important and we have all the studies from the Women’s Sports Foundation about the benefits of sports for girls but there are still a lot of barriers to overcome. Good athletes make good students and good workers. Being a former athlete is such an asset in the workforce. The ability to follow directions, focus and persevere, to be fair and not take things personally, those traits make for great hires. There’s no doubt about that.

Question: You have accomplished a great deal through your years as a champion gymnast and now working with the WSF and WHGF to give back to the next generation. If you could give all little girls one piece of advice about the importance of sports, what would it be?

Answer: Stick with it. Stick with it. Just don’t give up. That’s really the most important thing. If you stick with sports and all the things that go with it; the discipline, the repetition of doing it, the challenge of competition; then everything that comes with sport will give you everything you need to succeed in life – but you have to stay with it. So you do whatever you can to stick with your sport and listen to your coaches. The other thing I would say to young girls is to give back. I think that that will be very important in their lives.

Question: As we spend this month celebrating Women’s History and all the incredible accolades and barriers women have broken through, why do you believe the Women’s Sports Foundation is still needed?

Answer: It’s important. The reality of it is that whenever you have had discrimination for so long, change is going to be extremely difficult and tough. As far as women’s sports, we are still not there yet. There are a lot of issues. The fact that the women’s soccer team has to deal with playing on artificial turf at the highest level of their sport is a little crazy because the guys would never have that problem. And then, you have tennis tournament directors saying outrageous things about very accomplished, popular and successful female tennis players – jeez!

There’s always an issue that has to be overcome. There’s always a fight to be recognized. The Women’s Sports Foundation has done really well with standing up and also knowing how important it is to have great female role models. I had great role models at the WSF that I worked with, Donna de Varona, Billie Jean King, Lillian Greene Chamberlain and others, and to see these women that had been advocates and fighters before you gives you the strength to do that too.

The WSF always has always been on top of what’s going on and it’s needed. We are just not there yet, let’s be clear. It’s still not as prevalent for girls to go straight into sports as it is boys and, until it gets to that point, the WSF is needed. Even then you have other issues – such as participation, compensation and opportunity. So, the WSF will always have a place in our society to ensure that girls have equal access and reap the benefits of participation to lead successful lives.

I would also just say like to say that the Women’s Sports Foundation really provided me with a platform, but also the education and the ability to be around such strong female athlete role models. That made a huge difference in the trajectory of my life and career and it really showed me that things could be done. The Foundation is always going to have a place and I’m just very thankful for what it has done for me.

Women’s History Month: Interview with Angela Ruggiero >>

Women’s History Month: Interview with Dominique Dawes >>