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Wendy Hilliard Biography - Was Drawn to Artistry of Rhythmic Gymnastics, Started Program in Harlem

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Gymnast and founder, Wendy Hilliard Foundation

The first African-American rhythmic gymnast to represent the sport on a U.S. national team, Wendy Hilliard has won several medals in international competition. She has also gone on to promote the sport among inner-city children. The Wendy Hilliard Foundation, which she formed in 1995, provides funding and support for aspiring gymnasts in New York City, and to date has served more than 4,500 local children.

Was Drawn to Artistry of Rhythmic Gymnastics

Hilliard was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where there were few sports programs available in her neighborhood. She began training as a traditional gymnast after discovering the sport at a local gym. At a practice session one day, however, she noticed the ribbon used by a rhythmic team using the same gym. Inspired by the artistry of that sport, she decided to switch to rhythmic gymnastics.

Rhythmic gymnastics combines traditional gymnastic moves with elements of performance. Athletes perform jumps, splits, tumbles, or other moves while using props such as hoops, ribbons, or balls. The sport traces its roots to the early 1800s, when Swedish educator Per Henrik Ling developed a system of free exercise in which students would express their emotions through bodily movement. Over the years, trainers began incorporating apparatuses such as balls, ropes, and clubs into the sport. The first rhythmic gymnastics national championship was held in 1949 in the Soviet Union, and the first international competition took place in 1961. Rhythmic gymnastics became an Olympic sport in 1984.

Hilliard quickly excelled as a rhythmic gymnast, and in 1978 earned a spot on the U.S. national team, making her the first African American to represent a U.S. team. Her nine-year tenure on the team set a record, and she served two years as national team captain. As a member of the team, she competed in more than 15 foreign countries and in three World Championships, earning both national and international gold medals. After retiring from competition in 1998, Hilliard was named U.S. national team coach—a position she held for four years. One of her athletes, Aliane Baquerot, went to the Olympic Games in 1996.

A tireless advocate for her sport, Hilliard served for ten years as National Spokesperson for Rhythmic Gymnastics, and chaired the Athletes' council of USA Gymnastics. She also served as athlete representative for Men's, Women's and Rhythmic Gymnastics to the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1998, the Board of Directors of USA Gymnastics elected her Vice President for Rhythmic Gymnastics. Hilliard has also worked to promote athletic opportunities for girls, serving as president of the Women's Sports Foundation from 1995 to 1997. She was the first African American and the first gymnast to hold this position.

Started Program in Harlem

Growing weary of the high-pressure world of international athletics, Hilliard decided to realize her dream of inspiring children. In particular, she wished to make sports programs available to kids who had few resources to seek out elite athletic training. In 1994 she opened a free neighborhood program in rhythmic gymnastics to serve children in Harlem, where she was then living. Within the first year, more than 200 girls were enrolled in classes held at the Central Baptist Church in Manhattan's Upper West Side. The following year, Hilliard opened Rhythmic Gymnastics NY in the same location. Also that year, she formed the Wendy Hilliard Foundation to help provide funding for rhythmic gymnastics programs; at the competitive level, the cost of training per athlete can exceed $5,000 per year. Sponsors of the foundation include the U.S. Olympic Committee, the New York City Department of Youth and Community Services, the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Aetna Foundation, and the YWCA of the USA.

"There is just something about the discipline you learn doing this sport," she told New York Times writer Lynn Zinser. "These kids learn about nutrition, how to take care of themselves. You have to show up. You have to be on time. We watch their report cards. We want to keep kids in sports at this age."

Gymnastics has proved quite popular among Hilliard's young clients, who look up to her as a role model. "It's awesome to be coached by Wendy," said one Harlem 15-year-old to Zinser in the New York Times. "She's the person I want to be like." Hilliard's programs, which include a six-week free summer gymnastics camp for 350 students each year, have introduced competitive gymnastics to more than 4,500 New York City children—including more than 150 each year who live in homeless shelters.

Continues to Promote Excellence in Sports

In addition to her work with children, Hilliard has worked as a television analyst and interviewer, including coverage of the 1992 summer Olympic Games for NBC. She also conducts gymnastic clinics worldwide and appears as a guest performer in gymnastic tours and TV specials. Among the gymnastic superstars with whom she has performed are Nadia Comaneci, Shannon Miller, and Kurt Thomas. Hilliard also choreographs routines for top gymnasts, including Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes.

Hilliard is associate director, choreographer, and featured performer in the dance/gymnastics company AntiGravity, based in New York City. A founding member of the company, which was formed in 1990, she made her AntiGravity performance debut in 1997 in the Broadway musical, Candide. The company's performances, described by the Village Voice as "innovative, swanky, and mind-boggling," focus on movements in the air, and incorporate elements from classical dance, athletics, and theater. According to AntiGravity's Web site, the company's "unique movement vocabulary seamlessly incorporates acrobatic skills from many unrelated physical disciplines merging athletics and aesthetics into its own art form." The company has received commissions from leaders in several fields, including Bill Gates, Steve Forbes, Diddy, Giorgio Armani, Paul Newman, and Franco Zeffirelli.

At a Glance …

Born in Detroit, Michigan; married to Robert Mensah; children: one son. Education: Attended Wayne State University; graduated (with honors) from New York University.

Career: Rhythmic gymnast. Competed internationally, 1978-1988; U.S. National Rhythmic Gymnastics Team, coach, 1988-97; television broadcaster and sports analyst, 1989-; ANTIGRAVITY dance/gymnastics company, founding member, associate director, choreographer, and featured performer, 1990-; Wendy Hilliard Foundation, founder and president, 1995-; NYC2012, director of sports, 1999-.

Memberships: USA Gymnastics; Women's Sports Foundation.

Addresses: Office—c/o The Wendy Hilliard Foundation, 1 Liberty Plaza, 33rd floor, New York, NY 10006.

Also keeping Hilliard busy is her work as director of sports for NYC2012, an organization promoting New York City's bid to host the 2012 summer Olympic Games. In this position, she serves as liaison between NYC2012 and national governing bodies, the city's amateur sports community, and the region's Olympic athletes on all sports issues. Recognizing the importance of youth sports programs such as Hilliard's, NYC2012 noted on its Web site that "Sports make a difference in the lives of New York kids. Through hundreds of youth sport development programs…kids involved in sport develop healthier lifestyles, self-confidence, discipline, and a sense of teamwork and fair play."

Sources

Periodicals

Village Voice, October 2002.

On-line

"AntiGravity Bio," AntiGravity, www.anti-gravity.com (June 16. 2005).

"New York City's 2012 Olympic Bid," NCY2012, www.nyc2012 (June 16, 2005).

"Wendy Hilliard Biography," Wendy Hilliard Foundation, www.wendyontheweb.org (May 18, 2005).

—E. M. Shostak

John (Carl) Himmelman (1959-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights [next]

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