In 28 days, Israel and the Jewish world will celebrate the 21st Maccabiah Games, a.k.a. “The Jewish Olympics,” July 12 – 26. First held in 1932, the Maccabiah is the third-largest sporting event in the world, with 10,000 athletes competing.
Aries Wickham, a 9th grader at Columbia Secondary School in Manhattan, will represent the United States in Rhythmic Gymnastics. She has been training twelve hours a week in rhythmic gymnastics for eight years and is a two-time regional champion in Floor, Clubs, and Ball, a three-time state champion in Clubs and Hoop, and she holds international titles in Ribbon and Ball.
Aries is the first athlete from the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation in Harlem––established in 1996 by Wendy Hilliard, the first African-American rhythmic gymnast to compete as a member of the US national team––to earn a spot in the Maccabi Team USA. But her path to the Jewish Olympics has not been easy.
“When I was ten years old, I fractured every single bone possible in my foot,” Aries recalled. “Not being able to do gymnastics for months was hard, but coming back to practice was even harder than recovering from my injury. Getting past the mental barriers of being afraid to try something new in case I hurt myself again was tougher than physically strengthening up my body.”
But, as it turned out, that experience prepared Aries for her next challenge. “Gymnastics hasn’t only been great for helping me get tougher physically, but mentally, too,” she said. “Without gymnastics, I don’t think I’d be who I am now. Especially during the pandemic, when school was closed, all of my afterschool clubs were closed, and so I had no social interaction at all. Not having access to the gym affected me mentally, but at least having online gymnastics classes gave me somewhere to channel the mental and physical anguish I was going through due to the pandemic.”
Aries said that her Judaism has played a significant role in her remaining focused through the hardship she endured. “The rules for rhythmic gymnastics can be very complicated, and sometimes they even contradict one another. Whenever I start to get frustrated, I remind myself that those rules are just like the rules for building the tabernacle, which was the subject of my D’var Torah (Bat Mitzvah speech).”
“I’m excited, at this competition, to not only be doing gymnastics but to also be part of the Jewish athletic community,” Aries said.
Olympic athlete Wendy Hilliard said, “Aries is a gem! She represents everything the WHGF stands for: opportunity, hard work, consistent training, dedication, and the joy of gymnastics. To represent the US at the Maccabiah Games, she joins a select group of WHGF athletes; her coach, Alexis Page, of the National Rhythmic Gymnastics Team, and BJ Mensah, of the Jr National Team in Tumbling and Double Mini Trampoline.”
“We are so proud of Aries,” Hillard said.