The mood was festive and the backflips were plentiful as the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation (WHGF) celebrated its 25th anniversary with an in-person celebration titled “Flipping Forward.” The evening’s honorees, Jené Elzie and Emeka Okafor, had very personal connections to the foundation.
Elzie, recipient of the Spirit of Sport Award, is chief growth officer for Athletes First Partners and a former gymnast. “I’m incredibly passionate about young people, young gymnasts, so to me the work that Wendy has been doing for the last 25 years has been truly incredible,” she said. “It’s really great when the young gymnasts can come and share their talents with everyone.”
Okafor, NCAA Champion and former NBA player, received the Champions Award. He has been a long-time supporter of the WHGF, having significantly assisted Alexis Paige, now head coach of the foundation’s rhythmic gymnastics program, when she was a member of the national team.
“The longer I marched my path, the stronger I got, the more confident I got,” said Okafor. “I didn’t care about the end point. I felt whatever is ahead of me, I’ll be prepared for. What Wendy has done is create a path for youth to walk, to march forth, to work, feel confident and find themselves.”
Hilliard is a former rhythmic gymnast and member of the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Early in her coaching career she saw a lack of gymnastic opportunities for urban youth, which inspired her to launch the WHGF. Today, it serves girls and boys ages 3 to 17 at the Harlem Armory. In addition to gymnastics and tumbling, the young gymnasts learn about time management, responsibility, teamwork, leadership and good health. Quite a few of the participants have competed nationally and internationally.
Athletes and coaches were among the attendees, including fencer Peter Westbrook, whose foundation has trained many young fencers in the New York area. One of his former students, 2012 Olympian Nzingha Prescod, has now launched her own program, the Prescod Institute for Sport, Teamwork and Education (PISTE) and the PISTE Fencing Academy.
“It started as Fencing in the Park, which was a summer program in Brooklyn, and we’ve since grown it to be more programs,” said Prescod. “We have school programs and we also do community events.”
Before introducing some of the gymnasts, Hilliard addressed the audience. “What we do here is really, really special,” she said. “It’s not just about teaching gymnastics. … We want to set a legacy.”