Hall of Fame gymnast Wendy Hilliard broke the barrier as the first African-American to represent the United States in rhythmic gymnastics. After earning her spot on the national team in 1978, and facing discrimination during her career, she later became the national team coach. One of her students, Aliane Baquerot, competed in the 1996 Olympic Games.
“I was very horrified at the news,” Hilliard said when asked to comment on the Larry Nassar sexual assault case.
Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual misconduct, and admitted to using his position as team medical specialist to touch and molest girls during his treatments. He started serving as national team doctor in 1995, just one year before Hilliard’s student competed at the Games. Athletes started to complain of Nassar’s abuse in 1996.
“As a national team doctor who traveled with the girls to competitions and training camps, he was very close and ingrained in their lives,” said Hilliard.
Hilliard served as the chair for the Athletes’ Council of USA Gymnastics and as athlete representative for Men’s, Women’s and Rhythmic Gymnastics to the U.S Olympic Committee. She was also president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization that seeks to serve all female athletes and their right to compete. When it comes to having young athletes’ voices be heard, Hilliard is a true advocate.
“The culture of gymnastics is to never challenge authority, especially since one wrong move can cost you a spot on the team or any other
opportunity,” explained Hilliard. “As a result, the voices of so many athletes are never truly heard.”
Hilliard stated that Nassar was able to get away with such horrible actions because of the way in which USA Gymnastics is organized. She continued, “Leadership within the organization is determined more by who can bring in the most revenue than who can best contribute to the athletes’ true development. There is a disconnect between the athletes and the running governing bodies.”
Hilliard also founded The Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, an organization devoted to providing free and low-cost gymnastics to youth in Harlem. Among the 150 girls who came forward saying that they had been abused by Nassar were Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas.
“Those girls have visited our gym in Harlem. They are our heroes,” Hilliard emphasized. “It’s so sad and it makes us sick to know that they had to endure such horrifying things.”
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina of Nassar’s case allowed seven days’ worth of victim impact statements to be read in court, and Nassar heard every word of them.
“In the last week more has been done to protect athletes than ever before,” said Hilliard. “Even Aly Raisman’s interview on 60 Minutes wasn’t enough to start the movement. By allowing the women to speak, Judge Aquilina let every voice to be heard. She was the true game changer of this case.”
Nassar had already been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography before his sentencing for the seven counts of criminal sexual misconduct. He has also pleaded guilty to three charges of sexual misconduct in Eaton County, Mich. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 31, and 57 more victims are to give statements concerning his abuse.