September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

INSPIRATION

When Hilliard competed as a rhythmic gymnast in the ’80s, a coach told her she didn’t make the national team because she was black. It was a “huge wake-up call” about racism, says the three-time national team member, now 44. Defiant, Hilliard rose to the top of her sport, then coached the U.S. squad. But in ’01 she quit a board position with her sport’s governing body to focus on her foundation in New York City. There, she coaches inner-city children. “You have to give kids opportunities,” she says, “by creating them.”

IMPACT

Some of Hilliard’s students compete at the national level, but it’s also the little victories that count. “They hold their heads up and are proud of who they are,” says gymnastics mom Penny Graves, whose daughter Cheyenne, 13, now has dreams of Olympic gold. “They know they’re beautiful.”

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