Wendy Hilliard onstage during the 34th annual Salute to Women In Sports Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on Oct. 16, 2013 in New York City.
As a gymnast representing the United States, Wendy Hilliard never had to be told about the power of sport to bring people together.
As she traveled the world with the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team or competed in meets at home involving athletes from across the world, Hilliard always felt a kinship with her fellow athletes, whether they were from Europe, Asia, Africa — or across the street.
Sport was a great teacher.
“I have so many stories of places I went, and the most important thing is you understand people when you do sport,” said Hilliard, who was a member of the national rhythmic gymnastics team nine times, was elected captain twice and was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2008. “Everybody goes one place and you’re doing one thing together. You all come together for a competition. It shows you how more alike you are. There are a lot of differences. I understand that part. But when we were walking out on the mat we were all on the same boat.
“And you just get to respect people, people of different cultures. … Everybody’s out there. I have a much better world view.”
That world view will be shared and get more attention this week from all corners of the globe with the first International Day of Sport for Development and Peace this Sunday, April 6. The special day, as designated by a vote of the United Nations General Assembly last summer, is meant to draw attention to sport'scapacity for bringing people together.
“Sport has become a world language, a common denominator that breaks down all the walls, all the barriers,” said United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently in relation to the Day of Sport. “It is a worldwide industry whose practices can have widespread impact. Most of all, it is a powerful tool for progress and for development.”
While there will be events held in conjunction with the new special day — such as a run-walk for peace and panel discussion on the topic at U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland — Hilliard will continue to do what she’s been doing for years, providing a platform for sports that can be a launching pad for better lives — and understanding of other people.
After retiring as a competitive athlete in 1988, Hilliard started the Wendy Hilliard Foundation in 1996. Her foundation, based in Harlem in New York City, has provided low-cost or free gymnastics programs that have served more than 10,000 boys and girls. And the program has been so successful that it’s at capacity. These days, there’s a waiting list to get into classes, and Hilliard is in the midst of long-term planning to acquire larger facilities to accommodate more young athletes.
Hilliard’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The United States Olympic Committee recognized her for her years of service and the impact she’s had in 2011 when she received the USOC’s Rings of Gold award. That award is given annually to individuals and programs that are dedicated to helping children develop their Olympic or Paralympic dreams and “reach their highest athletic and personal potential.”
During her athletic career — when she became the first African-American to represent the United States in international competitions as a rhythmic gymnast — Hilliard says she never gave much thought to giving back to her sport or community after retirement.
“I must admit, I was really only thinking about competing,” she says, laughing.
But she says her parents’ civic-mindedness crept into her way of thinking, and one thing led to another. Her time as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, her experience as an athlete rep for USA Gymnastics and some years coaching young gymnasts — when she realized how expensive the sport was to average families — opened her eyes to new possibilities. And when USOC grants became available to support emerging sports, Hilliard applied for one, received it and — with the help of other support as well — created her foundation.
What she wanted to do was make the sport affordable and accessible.
“In New York, it costs $35 an hour to take one gymnastics class,” she said. “It’s prohibitive to too many people.”
So, through sponsor support the foundation keeps prices low and also offers scholarships.
“Anybody who comes to our door will be able to take gymnastics,” Hilliard said. “If they can afford it, great. But if they can’t, we make it work. Two thirds of our kids are on scholarship.”
Some athletes go on to compete at higher levels. Hilliard notes that one, Alexis Page, has gone on to be a part of U.S. national rhythmic gymnastics teams, has competed internationally and is now going to school at Howard University.
For many others, however, her program is part of a broader education that widens their perspectives, teaches them about the mind-body connection and health and nutrition as well as the value of work.
“I hear back from the kids,” Hilliard said. “We’ve been around a long time, so some of them went to college and come back and say, ‘Wendy, we’re so glad you made me work so hard because it gave me the work ethic.’”
And just as Hilliard discovered sport was the path for a young woman from Detroit to better understand the world, so too are the kids in her program.
“My kids come from a lot of backgrounds,” she said. “My staff comes from a lot of backgrounds. So we’re around (diversity) more than I think most people around the country, but we appreciate it. We celebrate every (holiday) in our foundation,” she adds, laughing. “It’s just a respect thing.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.