For the past four decades, the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, which was founded in Harlem in 1996, has been an incubator for many young Black and brown gymnasts. Now located in Harlem and Detroit, and through its collaboration with the Harlem Armory and Harlem Children’s Zone, it continues to develop youth ages 3-17 physically, academically, socially, and emotionally, as well as serve adults with its 25 gymnastics instructors and program staff.
The latest notable WHGF participant to make a huge global imprint in gymnastics is 16-year-old rhythmic gymnast Aries Wickham. She is a two-time regional champion in floor, club, and ball exercises, and last July became Harlem’s first representative for Team USA in the Maccabiah Games held in Jerusalem. The Maccabiah Games is the third-largest sporting event in the world with 10,000 competitors from 80 countries taking part in 42 different sports.
“We’re doing a sport that’s extremely difficult while we have to make it look easy,” Wickham said through WHGF. “We have to smile and make it enjoyable to watch. This isn’t a soccer game where everyone knows you’re an athlete and you can sweat and cry as long as you’re still playing.
“This is a performance,” elaborated Wickham, a high school sophomore attending Columbia Secondary School in Manhattan. “You are performing in a competition where everything is being judged and people don’t realize how hard it is.
“Let’s say you mess up early in a routine; you have to pretend that never happened. It’s a lot of mental fortitude because you have to keep being strong all the way until the end.”
Wickham’s training regimen is one of which any world class athlete would admire. She has 12-hour sessions on weekdays and four hours on weekends while managing her rigorous academics. Additionally, she has two hours per week of ballet and physical therapy.
Her development is under the tutelage of WHGF founder and USA Gymnastics Hall of Famer Hilliard and the foundation’s head coach Alexis Page.
“Every time [Wendy Hilliard] comes and watches my routine or watches me practice,” said Wickham, “she explains something to me. She says, ‘That’s why I get paid the big bucks.’
“When [Alexis Page] started coaching me, she was 17. I feel like we have this bond because of mutual respect. She doesn’t coach me like a little kid. She choreographs routines for me specifically where it has my energy in them.”
Wickham will be competing at the Harlem Gymnastics Invitational February 24-26 at the HCZ Harlem Armory.