Wendy Hilliard broke boundaries when she became the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to make the U.S. national team. Now, as a younger generation of stellar black gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles carry the torch forward, Hilliard is looking back on the progress that has been made since she first broke out onto the scene.
Back when Hilliard was competing, the color of her skin was a barrier, she told The Huffington Post that she even missed out on the chance to compete in an international competition because of it.
“One year they didn’t put me on the team for world championships, and we were at the Olympic training center and we’re there for like six weeks. I’m on the top team and when they said that everybody was shocked,” she said. “The coach [said] ‘Oh Wendy, what are we going to do with you? You stand out too much.’ I was like, ‘So you’re telling me I’m not on the team because I’m black and that’s what it means?’ So I had to fight it.”
While Hilliard never competed in the Olympics herself she’s proud to see that the faces of elite gymnastics have diversified a bit since her time. Between 1932, when the United States gymnastics team made its first Olympics appearance, and 1992, only white women represented the country in the games. Now, both Douglas and Biles are powerhouses in the sport with Biles on track to become the first female gymnast to ever win five gold medals in one Olympics.
Hilliard said the two young women are “making a big difference” by providing visibility for black women gymnasts and encouraging little girls to follow in their footsteps.
“Seeing someone do it on the high level makes a huge difference,” she said. “I didn’t have that, I just loved my sport, but I could tell after Gabby Douglas, the amount of people that wanted to come take gymnastics with me went through the roof.”
The hall of fame gymnast, now trains budding athletes through the Wendy Hilliard Foundation in Harlem, New York, an organization that she founded in 1996 to offer free and low cost gymnastics programs for kids.
“I’ve had to find ways so that my kids, urban kids, even if you don’t have a lot of money [or] come from a challenging home, you can still be a great gymnast,” she said.
This video was produced by Jacques Morel and Alex Berg and edited by Zachary Chapman.