Black Gymnasts in History: Gwen Hilliard


Gwen and Wendy Hilliard - 2-27-16, 6-04 PM
My mother, Gwen Hilliard, and I at a Women’s Sports Foundation dinner

As we finish up our Black Gymnasts in History project, I am adding my mom, Gwen Hilliard, to the list.

My mom was the one who got the Detroit Recreation Department, headed by Leon Atchison, to hire four Soviet coaches that were working in the suburbs of Detroit. That created the Detroit Metro Gymnasts (“DMG”). The coaches were Drs. Vladimir and Zina Mironov, Roza Litva and Mike Freidan. My team became one of the two strongest rhythmic gymnastics clubs in the country in the 1980s.  The DMG also had girls’ artistic, tumbling & trampoline, and acrobatics. Although the cost of training was minimal, the travel to competition was costly, so Mom organized the Friends of the Detroit Metro Gymnasts. “Friends” consisted mainly of the parents of the gymnasts- but she went far beyond. The City of Detroit became our partner and they hosted the National Team Training Camp before the Pan Pacific Championships in 1978. In 1980, the City of Detroit hosted the National Championships at Cobo Hall, the premier arena, and it was the first nationally televised rhythmic championships. It aired on CBS Sports, with Muriel Grossfeld as the analyst.

Gwen Hilliard became the first Black State and then Regional Chairperson for Rhythmic Gymnastics. As she travelled the country promoting the sport, Mom was always admired for her professionalism and personality. Everyone from all disciplines (artistic, rhythmic) continues to ask about her to this day. She took one of the early Jeff Metzger Boot Camps to learn more about the sport–all of this while she was a full-time administrator for the Detroit Public School System. My Dad, Stratford Hilliard, was there every step of the way. Hosting Bulgarian coaches and numerous rhythmic judges at our home, and Mom and Dad were right by my side when I had to challenge a decision when a selection committee kept me off the World Championship group routine because I “stood out too much.”

Dad Wendy and Mom Sydney Olympics
At the Sydney Olympics with my parents, Stratford and Gwen Hilliard

As the story goes, Mom took acrobatics when she was young- but during a performance her father called out to her partner, “Don’t drop my daughter,” so she never performed again.

Thankfully, Mom came back to the sport and, two days before her 92nd birthday, we are honored to recognize Gwen Hilliard on our final day of our Black Gymnasts in History project.

Mom and WHGF Gymnasts
With WHGF team gymnasts at the annual foundation gala

BGIH Acknowledgements

This was a challenging, yet very rewarding project. Thank you to Pam Majumdar, the WHGF Social Media Consultant who worked so hard making sure we posted everyday.

Abie Grossfeld – what a historian! He gave me a list early on that was spot on- and kept helping along the way.

Dwight Normile at International Gymnast magazine – thank you for your help indeed and great (hard to find) photos.

Dave Green- Thank you for keeping us on track and for your great suggestions.

Makoto Sakamoto “Mako”: Abie asked me to contact Mako in Hawaii. Mako was so gracious; he was a teammate and boyhood friend of 1968 Olympian Kanati Allen.

Kanati Allen
Kanati Allen

With respect to Mr. Allen who passed away in 2011, we decided not to include him in our project, but here is his story from an interview in International Gymnast, January 1968:

Kanati Allen
5′-8″, 138 lbs.
Attended Los Angeles City High School
Physics major at UCLA

High School coach: John Muir, but said his main coaches were the Sakamoto brothers. Makoto Sakamoto was also on the 1968 Olympic team.

When asked (about) the proposed “Negro boycott of the U.S. team for the 1968 Olympics,” he responded as follows:

“In the first place, I am American Indian—5/8 Cherokee, from my mother and also a little Scotch and Irish. Having cleared that up, I don’t see yet how it would help to boycott the Olympics. I’d have to understand that first before I’d even consider it.”

He also said he considered other sports “are a game. Gymnastics is the only sport. It’s a kind of way of life.”

Kanati’s first name was James, and Mako confirmed that he had a Native American funeral service. After gymnastics, Kanti Allen earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Washington.


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