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Wendy Hilliard

Detroit was once a talent pool for top gymnasts. A hometown champion wants to bring that back.

Wendy Hilliard is looking to open a dedicated gymnastics center in Detroit

Here at Kemeny Recreation Center, two dozen or so girls ages five to seven —and one lone boy, probably about three — are spending their Saturday morning tumbling, tucking, swinging and attempting to memorize a brief but complex dance routine set to Taylor Swift.

In a bright, kid-friendly voice ready for Nick Jr., barefoot coach Wendy Hilliard somehow remains authoritative. “Touch your knees! Now your toes! Face forward!” Almost all are in unison, and even the youngest boy, barely out of diapers, keeps up. All of them, except for one.

There’s one girl that would rather lay on the floor and giggle, so Hilliard at first gently reminds her to keep up. When that doesn’t work, she pulls her to her side and has her do the steps side by side with her — essentially putting her on more display to the rest of the class, but being careful not to embarrass her. Soon, the girl joins back in with the rest of the group.

The gym, mostly covered with plush purple mats, is closed off to the parents of the kids, who occasionally crowd around a door or one of the looking glasses to peek in. Any time one of the parents tries to make their way inside, an assistant coach shoos them out. “We try to keep the parents out so the kids can focus,” is a common refrain.

“I don’t think the parents should be so involved,” Hilliard says during a break from the class. “When you pay a lot of money for something, you want to be all up in the stuff. (But) it doesn’t matter how much you pay, it doesn’t matter how much you yell at them to do it, if they don’t physically work hard to do it, it won’t get done.”

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Getting parents to understand that gymnastics is more than backflips and somersaults is just one part of Hilliard’s mission, which has brought her back to Detroit, her hometown, after a years-long absence. As a teen and young adult, Hilliard, a westsider, was the first black rhythmic gymnast to compete at the national level. Long after having moved from competition to training and education, Hilliard has spent more than 20 years managing a New York-based foundation that offers low-cost gymnastic training programs for youth.

This year, Hilliard is taking steps to establish a dedicated gymnastics center here in Detroit. She returned part-time to Detroit in 2016 as one of several Detroit ex-pats participating in Detroit Homecoming, and in the years since she has taken steps to expand her foundation’s activities in the city. Now Hilliard is looking to recruit funders to ultimately offer the kind of programming she had in her youth.

“When we first opened in 2016, we were like, where did these kids come from? They were flexible they were strong, they were flipping already. There was just this long hunger that they wanted to do gymnastics but it just wasn’t here. There’s no doubt that the talent’s here,” she says.

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"There’s no doubt that the talent’s here."

Hilliard’s journey began at the now-closed Fisher YMCA center in the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, where gymnastics classes were offered to kids. She knew early she wanted to pursue it at a higher level, but that meant her mother had to shuttle her back and forth to the suburbs for advanced training.

“She wasn’t liking that very much — the combination of driving to the suburbs and also the cost,” Hilliard says.

In an unusual move for the time, Hilliard’s family and other gymnast families in the city lobbied the Detroit Recreation Department to structure a program for gymnasts. The department responded by hiring four gymnastics coaches from the Soviet Union, who emigrated to the United States and became full-time employees of the department.

If that storyline sounds familiar, it should. The recreation department leaning on Russian talent to train Detroit athletes predates the “Russian Five” recruitment of Soviet hockey players to the Red Wings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Although I’m sure the Red Wings had more money than we had,” Hilliard jokes.

For a time, if now unsung, Detroit was a hotbed for gymnastics talent. From 1977 to 1992, Detroit managed to graduate several gymnasts — most of them black — into national and international competition, including Hilliard, who after graduating from Cass Tech (“I know Detroiter are funny about that,” she laughs) went on to Wayne State University and New York University and competed in rhythmic gymnastics worldwide. In return, the city hosted several championships at Cobo Center and other venues.

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“We had these Russian coaches, we had all these black gymnasts, we were traveling all over the country, we were pretty much the only team with black gymnasts on it at the time,” Hilliard says, “but we had this really great training and it taught me that as long as you have the great training and the opportunity, then you can become great at what you do.

“The fact that the recreation department really made such an investment in our sport — it was a great opportunity,” she adds. “The city was having some hard times in the ‘80s, everybody was kind of leaving and there was a bad rap, but we were ambassadors of the city and we’re very proud of that.”

In 1992, the Russian coaches moved out of Detroit as funding ran out for gymnastics programming. By the mid-1990s, Dominique Dawes became the face of American gymnastics. It would be the first time many Americans saw a black athlete as representative of the sport. But Hilliard notes there were several before her. On her foundation’s website, she makes sure to highlight black gymnasts who came along before and during Dawes’ time.

The face of black gymnastics is often female as well — not that anyone would object. But the reasons why male gymnasts, and black gymnasts in general, may be overlooked is for many reasons, Hilliard says. For one, while female gymnasts are younger — Dawes was a national champion at 15, Gabrielle Douglas and Simone Biles were 17- and 19-year-old Olympians, respectively — male gymnasts spend most of their teen years conditioning and training before gaining attention in their 20s.

“Male gymnastics is strength. What happens with male gymnasts is that you have to wait, and condition like crazy and get the strength when you’re 18 years old. That’s a lot of time just working out…guys have to put in the extra time all the time to become gymnastics,” she says. That can be a turnoff, Hilliard says, to teen males who end up falling into football, basketball or soccer instead.

The big reason? Cost. “Gymnastics is expensive because coaches cost a lot, the space costs a lot and year-round travel,” Hilliard says, noting that it could cost up to $50,000 a year to support a young gymnast.

Black families are often at an economic disadvantage, something that drives Hilliard to raise funding for gymnasts-in-training. “As a foundation, we work very hard to raise money, that’s what we do.”

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Even with funding, integration of gymnastics and navigating the cultural landmines that come with it will remain a challenge. Hilliard makes it a priority to have teachers “reflect how the kids look…because ecause not everybody loves it that much that they’re ok to be the only one in ten years in class — which is what Gabby (Douglas) had to do.”

That’s part of what made Hilliard’s gymnastics training in Detroit special. “I would be this black girl in Poland, but every time I came home to Detroit, I had this sisterhood, I had the people I grew up with, I had the mayor — I had a mayor who was black my whole life. People don’t do that in other cities,” she says. “To have people around here that represent success and just embrace you makes a big difference.”

To make the move toward establishing a dedicated gymnastics center, Hilliard wants to partner with the City of Detroit’s recreation department to offer gymnastics training in each of the rec centers while raising funds for a standalone center. It’s a community effort; many of Hilliard’s teammates from back in the day are now coaching the kids. Until then, she’s on the search for that funding.

“We’re looking for partners and we’re looking for supporters to invest in these kids. Investing in these kids doing gymnastics is going to help them lifelong,” she says.