Olympic golden couple Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner were honorees at the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation gala, held Oct. 11. In addressing the crowd, Conner told those in attendance that the thing that matters most in his life is authenticity. He turned to Hilliard and said, “You have authentically committed to your foundation, to these kids and to the community.”
Founded in 1996 by Hilliard, the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to represent the U.S. in Olympic competition, the WHGF has provided free and low-cost quality gymnastics programs to more than 17,000 urban youth. The program includes rhythmic gymnastics, artistic gymnastics and tumbling. Participants have competed at the highest level, and others have taken the life skills they learned in the program and translated those into exciting careers.
Someone who illustrates that success is program alumna Niahlah Hope, a professional stunt woman whose credits include being the stunt double for Lupita Nyong’o in “Black Panther.” She participated in WHGF programs from age 8 to 18, which physically and mentally prepared her for stunt work.
“I wanted to do something I loved and make a living,” said Hope, who earned a degree in economics and environmental studies from Amherst College. “Being a gymnast is a lot about air awareness and knowing where your body is in time and space. I use that almost every day in my work.”
Hope’s credits also include “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Night School,” “Luke Cage” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Gymnastics made her unafraid of falling, and she takes bruises in stride.
“It was great to be around so many other Black stunt people and be in that community,” said Hope of the “Black Panther” shoot. Her fiercest stunt on the film was throwing herself down a mountain. Being around Hilliard, who after her Olympic success rooted herself in Harlem, gives Hope motivation to do the same. She enjoyed seeing how many people came out for the gala to support current and future program participants.
The program’s young gymnasts in attendance had a great time meeting the attendees and performing. “I’ve gained a lot of skills, confidence and new friends,” said Ida Lowe, part of the WHGF for almost seven years with her twin sister, Asca.
“We are all products of the community,” said board member Marion Phillips III. “The question is are you going to grow and leave or are you going to grow and seed. Wendy has grown and seeded and she’s blossoming in watching the program grow and change the lives of young people.”