Sika Henry and the motivation to become a professional triathlete
As Sika Henry worked to become the first African American professional triathlete, she recalled her childhood conversations about race with her family.
His parents told Henry and his brother, Nile, stories about their paternal grandfather, who was a track and field athlete and football player in the 1920s. Due to segregation, he did not was licensed to play in the NFL and instead pursued a career as a jazz musician.
This memory stuck with Henry. She uses it as motivation in her triathlon journey, a sport in which few competitors are like her.
âHe once said to my father, ‘I never thought I would see a day when black people could play professional sport,â Henry said.
And sometimes Henry was also unsure whether she would ever compete professionally in his sport.
No other African-American woman had earned an elite license – which gives triathletes their professional status – in triathlon before Henry, according to USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body. She overcame a horrific bicycle accident during a race in 2019. She had to find ways to stay motivated when the coronavirus pandemic put races on hold for a year. After years of pushing herself further than she ever thought she could pursue her dream, she wondered if it was really worth it.
âThere were times I was like, ‘Maybe this just isn’t meant to happen for me,’â Henry said earlier this year.
Henry hated long distance running. She joined the track team at Tufts University, a Division III school outside of Boston, where her main event was the high jump in addition to the 200, 400 and 4×400-meter races. To train for the 400, Henry’s trainer suggested he run three miles sometimes during the week. She would balk at a distance. âI thought it was so long and painful,â Henry said.
In 2013, however, a breakup left her looking for a distraction, so she signed up for a local sprint triathlon, a beginner-friendly race consisting of a half-mile swim, of a 12.4 mile bike ride and a 3.1 mile run.
Henry said she didn’t show any extraordinary promise in this first race. But it was fun. Fun enough that she thought she might want to do it again.
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And yet, Henry noticed that there were hardly any other blacks competing alongside him.
“I was like, ‘Where are they?'” She said.
While other individual sports, like sprinting, have a large number of African American competitors, triathlon attracts few non-whites. As of this year, according to USA Triathlon, 13.3% of its annual members are people of color. Less than 2% are black or African American.
âIt’s a bit of a taboo,â said Dr. Tekemia Dorsey, the only black woman on the USA Triathlon board of directors.
âYou’re not going to go into an urban community and see a race or have the opportunity to run,â Dorsey said. âYou can travel 30 miles north, east, south or west in a rural or suburban area, and you have triathlon races everywhere. So for minorities, that’s still part of the barrier.
Henry is only the second black triathlete in the United States to achieve professional status. Max Fennell became the first African American triathlete to achieve professional certification in 2014. To qualify for professional status, triathletes must either finish in the top 10 amateurs at a world championship or place in the top five. first in a triathlon in the United States. National group event, or finish among the top three amateurs in another qualifying race. Professionals are eligible for pro prize pools during races and get a path to other forms of income, such as sponsorships. During his quest for professional status, Henry secured a sponsorship from the shoe company Hoka, a rarity for endurance sports enthusiasts.
While Henry’s entry into the triathlon was relatively late and unconventional, avenues were created to attract young black Americans to the sport.
Dorsey oversees the International Association of Black Triathletes, a non-profit organization that allows underrepresented youth to compete. In recent years, USA Triathlon has tried other measures as well, including an engagement program for historically black colleges and universities to involve more black college athletes in triathlon.
Two HBCU triathlon programs have been established since the introduction of the engagement program, at Hampton University in 2018 and Delaware State University in 2020. But there haven’t been any yet. profound impact on diversity in sport in general, said Dorsey.
The circumstances surrounding participation manifest themselves in each of Henry’s races.
“She would be the only one,” said Henry’s mother, Regina Henry, who takes pictures during her races. âWhen you look at the photos, they always tell the story. There would be her, and then you would see all the white faces around her.
It’s a familiar reality for Henry, who attended predominantly white schools in Montclair, NJ. Her mother said her elementary school had two black daughters.
âThey were nothing alike. Total difference between night and day, and people would confuse each other, âsaid Regina Henry.
Henry’s parents put her to swim before she could walk, and she was on her high school swim team. Typically, Henry said, she was one of the few black people at the meetings.
Swimming, which is the first stop in the triathlon, is a major deterrent for many potential African American participants. An inability to swim disproportionately affects the black community, according to studies commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, and many black parents who cannot swim are afraid of drowning and are less likely to take their children to the pool or to sign. getting them ready for swimming lessons, said Caryn Maconi, former marketing director for USA Triathlon.
âIt goes back generations,â Maconi said. âIt’s not just something happening now. This is something that has been entrenched for a long time due to lack of access.
Creating visibility for blacks in triathlon prompted Henry to push for diversity in the sport, and that was part of what brought her back to the sport after a horrific bicycle accident in 2019 left her behind. hospitalized.
During the 2019 Ironman 70.3 Galveston race (a popular middle distance triathlon race in Texas consisting of 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking, and 13.1 miles of running), Henry swerved about 25 miles an hour to avoid another biker who had merged with his path without looking. She crashed into a roadside barricade. The impact knocked her onto the sidewalk and knocked her out. She broke her nose and knocked out some of her teeth. Doctors used over 30 stitches on her face. She had rashes all over her body.
“All I could think of was how am I going to get her back on her feet,” Regina Henry recalls in a shaky voice.
Henry was ready to leave triathlon forever.
But after hearing about her accident, the young athletes following her story started sending her cards. They sent photos of triathletes with their faces colored to represent black people, to represent them and Henry. She was their model.
“I hadn’t realized number 1, how closely people had been following my trip all this time,” Henry said, “and that it was important to them and that it mattered.”
The open water swimming stage of the triathlon presents its own dangers due to the unpredictable currents, but accidents during the cycling stage are common. After her accident, Henry realized how dangerous her sport could be, but she vowed to go back.
I can’t just stop, Henry remembered thinking. “What kind of role model would I be if I just gave up the second things got really bad or really tough?” “
Henry’s coach Jonathan Caron, whom she attributes to her return from a “broken and mentally destroyed” state, wanted to make sure she didn’t focus too much on her performance as she returned to the gym. ‘coaching. Caron started it off slowly, with a walk around the track here and there.
About six months after his accident, Henry competed in the Ironman 70.3 in Augusta, Georgia. She finished sixth in the general amateur classification.
A few weeks later, she competed at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, her first full Ironman race (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles cycling and 26.2 miles running), crossing the finish line in 11 hours and 35 minutes.
Henry’s first race as a professional triathlete was in September. She said it was one of her worst. The learning curve of racing as a pro against other pros instead of amateurs was tough. But succeeding in his first race as a professional triathlete was a long-awaited relief. On Saturday, Henry competed in the JFK 50 Mile, her first ultramarathon and last race of the year, as she trains for the 2022 season, which will be her first full season as a professional triathlete.
With that goal now behind her, Henry has time to figure out what she wants from her sport next.
âChasing my pro card was a very self-centered effort,â said Henry. âAnd now I can focus on things outside of that. “