Harlem’s Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation Spotlight Alumni Zenell Mangal

May 12, 2023

Zenell Mangal is taking her gymnastics talents to modern heights.

The 17-year-old senior at University Heights High School in The Bronx and former pupil for the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation (WHGF) will be a freshman this fall for the Fisk University women’s artistic gymnastics team.

This winter, Fisk University in Nashville made national headlines when it became the first Historically Black College & University (HBCU) institution to introduce a women’s NCAA Division I artistic gymnastics program.

“I feel honored to be able to continue gymnastics at Fisk,” Mangal said. “Excelling in this sport at an HBCU will definitely inspire many girls of color to work to become amazing gymnasts and provide them the opportunity to be on a college team where they are the majority.

“The most important things to succeed in gymnastics are commitment and the ability to stay focused. Gymnastics requires not just physical strength but mental strength as well. If you’re not mentally focused when doing skills, it becomes difficult and sometimes unsafe.”

“On vault, I focus on running as fast as I can every time and committing to the skill. When I’m not 100 percent focused, it gets hard, and I start to doubt myself. I also do a lot of drills on the side, and I like to watch videos of college and elite gymnasts vaulting and try to learn tips from them.”

Mangal is currently with Gotham Gymnastics. This year she’s facing stiff competition in the state in level 10 but finished No. 2 in vault and No. 4 in floor. And during the regionals, her talents earned her No. 2 in floor exercises and No. 4 in the vault.

In level nine, she placed No. 1 in the state in both the vault and all-around. On the eastern national stage, she was third in vault and beam.

“I like vault and floor,” Mangal said, “because it’s fun to flip and twist so high in the air.”

As a youth, she acquired much of her confidence and developed elite talents in all exercises while with WHGF.

In 2015, Fabu Cox, her former coach, and mentor today, was a coach at WHGF when Mangal was looking for a new gymnastics team to join. At the time, Cox and Mangal had developed a strong appreciation for each other to make the transition easy for Mangal to join her at WHGF.

During her stint at WHGF, Mangal (photo insert with WHGF in 2016) and her gymnastics prowess surged through level four and level five stages. Mangal credits WHGF for not only stimulating her own growth in the sport but for doing the same for thousands of youths throughout the NYC community.

“I think the (Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics) Foundation is crucial to kids in NYC because it provides the opportunity for kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds to have the chance to try gymnastics,” Mangal said. “It was convenient for my parents because it was very affordable for them, and it was right by The Bronx.

“It is already growing the sport of gymnastics here because of that. Parents from lower-income communities can pay for affordable gymnastics and don’t need to travel far.”

Thriving as a student in a program founded by Wendy Hilliard, the first Black athlete to represent the U.S. in international competition in rhythmic gymnastics and USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer, has proven valuable to Mangal’s career.

“I remember getting a lot of rips on my hand from bars, and Wendy would be there encouraging me to keep going and saying it’s going to get better,” Mengal said. “She encouraged all of us to do our best. Her advice remains with me and helps me keep going when I’m struggling with my skills.”

Those lessons will accompany her when she begins her collegiate career at Fisk University, both in gymnastics and pursuing a degree in biology.

Earlier this year, Mangal performed at the WHGF”s “Showtime in Harlem” during the Harlem Gymnastics Invitational “HGI” at the Harlem Children’s Zone Armory. The Harlem Gymnastics Invitational featured HGI 130 current WHGF students and 500 overall competitors representing six states.

“It was very nostalgic doing aerials on the beam that I learned to do cartwheels on,” Mangal recalled. “I was excited to see my old coaches I haven’t seen in years. When Wendy announced to the audience that I would do gymnastics at Fisk, everyone cheered and clapped for me.

“It felt amazing to have the support of so many people.”

Wendy Hillard and WHGF

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Wendy started gymnastics at age 12. She trained through the Detroit Recreation Department with coaches from the former Soviet Union. She was the first Black athlete to represent the U.S. in international competition in rhythmic gymnastics and competed in three World Championships. In 2008 she was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Following her competitive and award-winning experience as a world-class athlete and coach, Wendy recognized the lack of gymnastic opportunities among urban youth, which inspired her to launch the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation in 1996 in Harlem, New York, and expanded to Detroit in 2016.

Today, the Foundation serves urban youth between the ages of 3 to 17, helping to improve their physical and mental health and providing various programs focused on Health & Nutrition, Sports Safety to Career Path Internships, Public Speaking, and NYC Public School Admission Assistance. At WHGF, young gymnasts learn about time management, responsibility, teamwork, leadership, and sustainable health habits.

Last year WHGF in New York City celebrated its 25th anniversary. WHGF is headquartered in Harlem and has a location in Hilliard’s hometown of Detroit, which opened in 2016. Since its inception, WHGF has provided FREE and low-cost gymnastics to underserved communities, serving 25,000 urban youth to date.

Throughout the years, WHGF has developed elite athletes and competitive gymnasts who have gone onto the national and international stage. BJ Mensah, from Harlem, competed in tumbling at the World Age Group Championships in Azerbaijan in 2021. Last November, Harlem’s ZaQuae Carter advanced to the finals and finished seventh overall at the World Age Group Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria. Last summer Carter finished runner-up in the junior division in tumbling during the USA Gymnastics Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Both Mensah and Carter competed as members of the USA Gymnastics Junior National Team. In July 2022, rhythmic gymnast and Tenth grader Aries Wickham became the first Harlem athlete representing the United States in Israel at the Maccabiah Games, the renowned sporting event open to Jewish athletes from around the world.  Former Gymnastics Manager and WHGF head coach Alexis Page was a three-time U.S. Rhythmic Gymnast National Team member and International Gold Medalist. Alexis Page joined the WHGF foundation in 2003, and by 2012, she started teaching to inspire young gymnasts to chase after their dreams, as she did. In addition, Niahlah Hope trained at WHGF from 2002 to 2010 and is now a professional Hollywood stunt double, including in the film Black Panther, while Olivia Boisson trained on the WHGF rhythmic gymnast team and is now a professional dancer at New York City Ballet. 

For more information, please visit https://www.wendyhilliard.org/. Visit Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and YouTube.

Photo credit: 1-2) Source.

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