(Reuters) – Ty-La Morris has always been special.
She was “a little older than one” when she crawled to the edge of her bed and did the splits, according to her mother, Likisha McCormick, and was three years old when she mastered the cartwheel, able to flip around the length of a football field.
“I used to tell my coworkers every day and they all kept saying, put her in gymnastics. I’m like, I can’t afford gymnastics. Gymnastics is very expensive,” said McCormick, who lives with Ty-La in New Windsor, more than an hour north of New York City.
Raw talent met opportunity two years ago when Ty-La, who is now 13, began classes at the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation, which offers free and discounted classes for children in Detroit and in New York – and is now fighting to serve hundreds of students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trying to keep these kids together has been what I’ve been working the hardest to do,” said founder Wendy Hilliard, a Hall of Fame rhythmic gymnast, who rolled out “Zoom” classes as the pandemic sent families indoors and later found spaces across the New York City metro area for her students, including a tennis court in the Bronx and a gym in Yonkers.
Throughout the year, she’s fought to find those facilities for her students to keep them competitive and in shape, as more affluent private gyms that serve predominantly white communities have the resources to stay open.
“I’m so frustrated that the priority – you know, if you have money, stuff like that, you can have your kids do these extra activities and other kids can’t if they’re urban kids or they don’t have the spaces,” said Hilliard. “We’ve been trying to navigate that part.”
For Ty-La Morris, a fearless tumbling and trampoline gymnast who dreams of attending UCLA, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant adapting to a social life on Zoom after the coronavirus shattered daily routines.
“They were having their regular meeting times (online) every day, even though it’s probably just stretching or whatever,” said McCormick. “The first time they had a meeting at a gym, they were just ecstatic to see each other. They were overjoyed. And I’m like, this hurts because they’re really close.”
She draws her inspiration from Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion, and earned the nickname “Gabby” from her former cheer squad.
“She would tell me, ‘Oh, mom, I’m going to the Olympics. I’m going to buy you a house, car and everything is going to be good. I’m going to the Olympics,'” said McCormick.
Ty-La, who said she’s also drawn comparisons to 2016 Olympic champion Simone Biles, said a full – a tumbling move where a gymnast flips backwards and twists – was her favorite move that she has learned through her classes at Wendy Hilliard Foundation.
She has also formed rock-solid bonds there with other students.
“We are very close. We (are) like brothers and sisters,” said Ty-La, who does abdominal workouts and push-ups to stay fit at home, on top of the instructional videos posted online by the Wendy Hilliard Foundation.
She has picked up new skills during 2020, despite the numerous hurdles that come with training in the middle of a pandemic, learning how to do a front full, double backs and more.
“I just always wanted to do gymnastics because I just love to flip,” said Ty-La, “And now I’m doing it.”
Athletes like Douglas and Biles ushered in an era where Black excellence in gymnastics has been front-and-center for Ty-La and aspiring gymnasts her age, said Hilliard, who was the first African-American woman to represent the United States Rhythmic Gymnastics team.
And in a year when Biles’ Olympic dreams were postponed, it was her candor outside of the gym – opening up about her mental health and wellness – that once again lit a path.
“Seeing her be so strong was very helpful because it was like even the greatest gymnast in the world is struggling,” said Hilliard. “You know, the time is different for us. You can sit up and take off six months a year and move on. But a kid who’s like nine years old a year is so long.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)