Last night, the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation (WHGF), a not-for-profit organization that provides free and low-cost quality gymnastics for inner-city youth, hosted their 5th Annual Gala Celebration in New York City.The event honored Billie Jean King, Social Justice Pioneer, Founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation and former World No. 1 professional tennis player with the Spirit of Sport Award and David O’Brien, Partner and Americas Leader of Brand Marketing and Communications, EY with the Corporate Award, for their commitment to women in sports. The event also honored Wendy Hilliard, Founder of the WHGF Hall of Fame rhythmic gymnast and the first African-American to represent the U.S. in international competition.
One hundred percent of the gala’s proceeds will support the WHGF gymnastics programs which, to-date, have served more than 17,000 local youth, developing elite athletes and international gymnastic performers in the process. Attendees were treated to a performance by the WHGF’s competition team members ages 7 to 17. Emmy Award-winning television anchor and journalist, Carol Jenkins, hosted the evening at the prestigious New York Athletic Club. Jenkins is currently the host of “Black America” on CUNY-TV. Honorary chairs of the benefit were Gabby Douglas, three-time Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast and David N. Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City. Also in attendance were Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Curtis Archer, President of the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
Additional athletic luminaries that were in attendance at this year’s gala included but were not limited to:
- Sasha Cohen, Figure Skating: Olympic Silver Medalist and Three-time World Champion
- Donna DeVerona, Swimming: Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist
- Andra Douglas, Football: Owner of the New York Shark Female Football Team
- Camille Duvall, Water Skiing: Five-time World Champion
- Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley ,Track & Field: Olympic and Pan American Games Gold Medalist
- Kelly Kulick, Bowling: First woman ever to win the PBA Tournament of Champions
- Gail Marquis, Basketball: Olympic Medalist in 1976,the first year women’s basketball played in the Olympics
- Anne Marie Saccarato, Boxing: Three-time WBC Lightweight World Champion
- JoJo Starbuck, Figure Skating: Two-time Olympian, three-time U.S. Pairs Skating Champion
- Collette Smith, Football: First ever female coach for the 2017 New York Jets
- Donna Weinbrecht, Skiing: Olympic Gold Medalist
- Rose Vosik, Gymnastics: 1948 Olympian
- Lisa Wang, Rhythmic Gymnastics: Four-Time National Champion; USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame
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“You have to see it to be it,” said honoree Billie Jean King, Social Justice Pioneer, Founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation and former World No. 1 professional tennis player, as she addressed WHGF students, Olympians, sponsors, supporters and guests. “Wendy is an exceptional leader who has broken barriers as the first African American woman to compete internationally for the U.S. in rhythmic gymnastics. It’s clear that not only is Wendy excellent, but she has taught excellence to her students, empowering young people to believe in themselves through gymnastics; a sport that teaches you to trust your body and be strong.”
“At EY, we have long understood the power of diversity and inclusiveness to drive better outcomes across all dimensions of our business,” said honoree David O’Brien, Partner and Leader of Brand, Marketing & Communications for EY. “The work of the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation is where it all starts – instilling the values, work ethic and confidence in their students that creates a pipeline of future leaders for organizations like ours. I’m humbled to be honored alongside trailblazer Billie Jean King who has inspired millions to dare to dream and reach their full potential.”
“Gymnastics is one of the most popular Olympic sports but it is expensive and not very accessible in urban areas. The WHGF is changing that,” said WHGF Founder, Wendy Hilliard. “It’s truly an honor to have the support from two remarkable role models, Billie Jean King and David O’Brien, who have set precedence and paved the way for others to realize their full potential and ultimately fulfill their dreams. Gymnastics teaches discipline and the critical skills that give youth the confidence they need as they pursue their passions in life. Over the years, I have witnessed how much pride performing and competing gave my athletes and their families. It will stay with them forever – it is something they had to earn and that is why sports are so powerful!”
Honorary chairman and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins wasn’t able to attend the benefit but submitted the following sentiment, “It’s my honor to support Wendy’s wonderful and important organization that trains and nurtures youth in Harlem and other under-served communities. Wendy broke barriers as the first African American champion in rhythmic gymnastics. My dear friend Billie Jean King’s example as a champion and a pioneer for social justice, encouraged and inspired Wendy. Tonight we applaud the incomparable Billie Jean King, along with David O’Brien, for their commitment to celebrating and encouraging women to follow their dreams and realize their goals. I admire and applaud both Billie Jean and David O’Brien for the positive impact they have made and continue to make on the lives of others.”
The growing foundation has attracted attention in the past few years due to the excitement of the Rio Olympics, as a historic year with two African-American athletes chosen for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas. Hilliard knew it would have an enormous impact on the gymnastics world and interest in the sport among the youth in her community as it did when 16-year-old Gabby Douglas made history in the 2012 Olympics, becoming the first African-American to capture gold in the individual all-around gymnastics competition. The growth has continued as WHGF has recently expanded to serve another community in need, now offering gymnastics programs in Hilliard’s hometown of Detroit, MI.
Hilliard was a member of the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics National Team for a record setting nine times but early in her career she had to fight for her spot on the team. In 1983 Wendy was denied a spot on the World Championship Group Routine. The coach said that she stood out too much for the synchronized routine. Wendy challenged the decision and U.S.A. Gymnastics then selected the team based on the ranking from the National Championships which allowed Wendy to participate in her third World Championship. It was the pivotal incident that set the stage for her long career as an advocate for an athlete’s right to compete.
Throughout the years, Hilliard and her team have established an incredible track record of providing quality programs for urban youth, and people of all ages and abilities in the sport of gymnastics. In addition to the health and fitness benefits of gymnastics participation, the WHGF supports all students who have the determination and ability to compete. With the help of donors, sponsors and partners, WHGF athletes have competed throughout the country and around the world.
For more information about WHGF visit: https://www.wendyhilliard.org.