Last summer at the Olympics in London, she watched then-16-year-old Gabby Douglas make history, becoming the first African-American to capture gold in the individual all-around gymnastics competition.
Douglas’ exploits made an immediate impact on her sport’s popularity.
For the first time ever, Hilliard says there is a long waiting list to enroll in the classes her Wendy Hilliard Foundation provides at Harlem Children’s Zone.
Now, the trail-blazing American gymnast is celebrating Harlem’s future standouts in the sport.
Hundreds gathered at the 369th Regiment Armory (the home of the high flying Harlem Hellfighters) on Thursday to celebrate the growth of Hilliard’s foundation, watching more than 80 children perform their routines and hoping that the next “Flying Squirrel” will one day hail from Harlem.
“I knew when I watched Gabby win the gold medal last year that she was going to have an enormous impact on the gymnastics world,” said Hilliard, who was the first African-American to participate in international competitions in 1978 and was a two-time team captain of the U.S. national rhythmic gymnastics team.
One parent who attended Thursday’s event, Darrell Duncan, 33, said his daughter Demanye Duncan, 9, developed an immediate interest in gymnastics after watching the Olympic Games with him last year.
“She told me she wanted to be a gymnast and be like Gabby,” he said. “You never know what will happen, right? She gets home happy, and that is all that matters to me.”
Hilliard, who took up the sport during her childhood in Detroit, said Harlem was the perfect match for her goals. “I wanted to give kids the chance to practice gymnastics and fall in love with it like I did,” she said. “I know by experience that this is an expensive sport.”
Her foundation, which she launched in 1996, provides free and low-cost classes and sponsors a team that competes at the national level.
Hilliard, who has built successful programs in Harlem and at Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, has her sights set on making the historic 369th Regiment Armory on Fifth Ave. between 142nd and 143rd Sts. into a full-service location for Harlem’s aspiring gymnasts.
“Our kids need to have a full-time location to practice and be familiar with,” the former Olympian said. “This space is amazing for us, and my goal is to work hard getting donors to support our foundation to be able to make this our home.”
Parents who attended Thursday’s event said their children probably would not have gotten involved in gymnastics, were it not for Hilliard’s programs.
“As a single mother, the idea of my youngest child wanting to do gymnastics wasn’t attractive to me,” said Tarice Harris, 39, whose 7-year-old daughter Destiny King was among those performing on Thursday.
“I have to sacrifice a lot to make sure she can be here, and it wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t affordable,” Harris added.
Among those recognized on Thursday was noted educator Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone works in partnership with Hilliard’s foundation.
“Our kids are not going to go to the Olympics if they don’t have the best coaches, and we know that Wendy Hilliard is the best,” Canada said. “She chose us — our children — to help, so I thank her, and I commit to her because I know she is committed to us.”
One of Hilliard’s longtime proteges, Alexis Page, 17, has become an accomplished competitor at the national level and now helps her mentor, coaching the beginners class at the foundation. Page says she doesn’t like being tough on her charges, but she certainly appreciates the results.
“There are a few kids that are better than I was at their age,” said Page. “That really keeps me going” (source).
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