Sika Henry: First U.S. Black Female Professional Triathlete Q&A
by USA Triathlon
Sika Henry made history on May 2 at Challenge Cancun, qualifying for her USA Triathlon Elite license to become the first U.S. Black female professional triathlete in history. After recovering from a serious bike crash during a race in April 2019, she was then faced with a 2020 season almost entirely absent of racing opportunities due to the pandemic. Thus, sidelined for nearly two full seasons, Sika relied on personal drive and commitment — setting and achieving another goal of breaking 3 hours in the marathon in the fall of 2020. Now, she has broken through barriers in triathlon and shown the next generation of athletes what is possible through our sport. We are proud of her and excited to cheer her on in her professional career. USA Triathlon sat down with Sika to learn more about her historic race, what it means to be a role model for others, and what she hopes to achieve along her journey of becoming a pro.
USA Triathlon: Congratulations! What does it mean to you to earn your pro card and become the first U.S. Black female professional triathlete?
Sika Henry: I am still in shock! I did not realize the magnitude, or how much it meant until my crash in 2019. Of course, I was saying it would be so cool to be the first Black female professional triathlete, and what that could mean for the sport. But after my accident, I really did question how important it was. Did chasing this for diversity’s sake really matter? Yet, I was flooded with an inbox full of messages, mail from kids. I don’t think I realized how important it was until I spoke directly to people who I did not realize were following my story and who were cheering for me — and that they, too, wanted to see diversity in the sport, and saying I was someone for their kids to look up to.
To come back from what I went through and to accomplish this means so much more to me now. It’s more special. When I first started in the sport a few years ago, if I would have just gotten my pro card and not gone through all of this, it would have still meant a lot to me — but I think it’s the trials and tribulations, the people you meet, the stories you hear, that you realize how much of an impact it makes.
USAT: After a serious bike crash at IRONMAN 70.3 Texas in 2019, what inspired you to keep preserving and chasing your dream? What challenges did you face coming back to the sport?
SH: After I flew from the hospital in Texas to my parents’ home, literally the next day my father asked me, “If you knew all of this would happen, and you still prevailed and got your pro card, would you go through with this?” And I did not hesitate in saying it would be amazing and still worth it. That was my initial gut reaction, so I went with that. And receiving the messages and letters, knowing people were watching my story, I could not quit now. What kind of example would that set for kids watching? When the going gets tough, you can't just drop out. And I think you have to take that into every race, too. Honestly, this past weekend was like 100 degrees, in Cancun. I wanted to drop out so many times, but I do think about what I have been through.
Recovering from the crash was harder than anything I have ever done. It inspired me to come back and keep the momentum going. After the crash, it was horrible, my face was destroyed, and little things were the hardest neurologically. I had to take multiple exams to make sure my brain was functioning correctly. You always hear about concussions and people having issues later, so I was just concerned about so many little things. Of course, cycling now, having had that accident, you become aware of how dangerous the sport can be and you’re more cognizant. Before I might have been more reckless, not really looking at blind spots, now I am fully aware of my space. It changed how I race and heal. It took a while; I knocked my teeth loose and had to get a splint in my mouth. To make sure my mouth filled correctly, I had to have oral surgery. So going through all of that, trying to maintain fitness, and get back as soon as possible, was tough because I hate sitting around. That was the hardest thing of all of it, just sitting around letting your body heal.
As athletes, depending on the degree of injury, we are all like, “Oh, maybe I should skip this run or maybe I should just do it, and the next day we are saying, “I should’ve skipped that run.” But recovering from my crash and seeing everybody racing while I was sitting around was extremely hard. In fact, I feel like last year going through COVID was easier, because no one could race. For me in 2019, I got injured right before the season while everyone was out hitting PRs and racing, while I had to sit and wait for the “OK” from my doctors.
USAT: Take us through the race in Cancun. We heard you had a mechanical on the bike and then had the run of your life to get back in the race. What was going through your mind?
SH: Leading into the race, it was not that windy, and I had great swims, the water was calm. On race morning you never know you will get. It was windy, and the swim was very choppy. It was one of my slowest swims to date, and it is not fun to start a race off like that when you look at your watch and you are like, “Oh boy!” With these long races you never know what’s going to happen, and I assumed because the water was rough other people had slower swims as well. So, I tried not to overthink my time.
I have been working hard on my bike the past few months. I put in at least 80 miles every Saturday, which is the most I’ve ever ridden in my life. I was confident my biking had improved a lot — but it was windy, and the road conditions were not ideal. I said to myself, “I would be surprised if I don’t see mechanicals all over the place, because of the speed bumps and the potholes.” Luckily, I felt safe because they closed traffic off. I found a great group of women to ride with, we were working together and switching off and on legally in a line.
They had tons of referees on the course, which was great. I rode well until closing in on the second lap, when I hit a pothole the wrong way and flew in the air, landed back down in my seat and the bike completely collapsed down. At first, I tried to continue riding but I knew the amount of weight being put on my legs would not help my run later, so I made the executive decision to just stop and fix it. Luckily, I keep tools on my bike. I was freaking out, my hands were shaking, and I thought my race was over. However, I was able to fix my mechanical. I looked at my watch and noticed I lost three minutes of time, so I got back on my bike and started hammering it out. A few other people suffered mechanicals. I tried not to overthink it. The run is my strength, and I knew it was hot and women were potentially going to be jogging and walking on the run, so I figured if I could run like usually do, I can make my way up the field.
I had no idea what place I was in. My dad was there cheering but he was not tracking anything, so I did not know where I was. The run was three laps and I saw that I was moving up and closing ground on every single lap. The last lap, I just went all out. I was drinking Coke, trying to move as fast as I could. I think my last mile was like 6 minutes or so. I only ran a 1:32, but it was the fastest amateur women’s split, and only two pro women ran faster. I think that really made a difference, just putting it all out there on the line. I crossed the finished line and ended up in the med tent, and so did a few friends due to the heat. Then it was the waiting game. My dad and I hit the refresh button on the results tracker several times, since the race was socially distanced, and we had all started one by one. I had no idea which place I was in, even when I crossed the line. Then I saw it was official, that I was the third amateur, and that I qualified for my pro card. My dad and I were very emotional about it.
USAT: Why is it important to see yourself and people who look like you represented at every level of the sport? Have you noticed your multisport journey impacting and inspiring others?
SH: I can only relate to my own story and path through sport — but for me, it started as a kid, watching the gymnast Dominique Dawes in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. She was my idol, and I thought she was just incredible because she was the only Black gymnast at the time. I got into gymnastics because of her, and that was my first real sport. I think we are all like that. Young kids look up to Michael Phelps and end up wanting to be the top collegiate swimmer and compete at the Olympics. Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile, and now kids are doing it left and right, but he set the bar for everyone. I do believe in the importance of image and representation. If you can see it, you can achieve it. I think that’s also why we watch sports. It’s entertaining, but we watch it and go, “I wonder if I can do that.” Just like when we watch Hawaii, that’s how so many people end up chasing their dream of Kona, because they watch it on NBC and they’re like, “I want to do that. I want to go there one day.” I’m hoping me qualifying will inspire others. You just never know! I remember watching an interview with Simone Manuel when she won 100 gold in swimming at the Olympics. She thanked Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia, the first swimmers of color to win a medal in the Olympics, and she said the same thing that she grew up watching them and went on to become the first African American to win an Olympic gold.
I look at my own life growing up and the path I took, and it’s because of the people who influenced me, my predecessors. I met Marilyn Bevans, the first African American woman to break three hours in the marathon, at the National Black Marathoners Association in 2015. I was still kind of a rookie and I wasn’t very fast at all. I remember thinking how cool that was, and how short the list was of African American women who have broken three hours in the marathon. I knew I wanted to be on that list. I finally had the opportunity during the pandemic, and it was because I met her and became inspired to want to be on that list.
USAT: Who has supported you in your journey? Who encouraged you to keep at it when it would have been easier to give up?
SH: My family, my parents and my brother. It’s always been Team Sika, they come to all my races. I know how difficult it was for my mom after my crash. My brother supported me through all of this, giving me the confidence to succeed. I’ve had some really great mentors. Dan Empfield, owner of Slowtwitch.com, he invented the first triathlon swimsuit and the first triathlon-specific bike. He is an entrepreneur and inventor who has had a huge impact on the sport and has been in the sport for so long. It has been great having him in my corner, guiding me from the beginning to now, introducing me to everyone in the industry. Eric Gilsenan with HOKA, the triathlete recruiter for them. In 2017, I was speaking on a panel at the Triathlon Business International Conference about diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport of triathlon, and people weren’t really talking about it for whatever reason a few years ago like they are now. But I think because I was speaking there, I was able to meet Zoot, who has been with me from the beginning.
The people who I met years ago and the companies that are still with me now, they didn’t just hop on board during #Blacklivesmatter or George Floyd, we need representation, let’s grab Sika. It’s the people that years ago, when I was talking about this and how important it was to me, did everything they could to get me to this point.
USAT: What's next for you? Have you decided on a pro debut?
SH: REV3 Williamsburg next month. They finally added a pro field back to their race, and this year it’s a Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO)-supported race. I live an hour away, so I get to sleep in my own bed and my family can come to the race. It is 60 percent women registered for the race. It’s also an annual meetup for FastChix, the women’s endurance sports team started by Yvonne Spencer, so that is our annual meetup. That will be a special race for me and my first one as a pro, so I am looking forward to it. I also always want to try something new every year, so I just signed up for the JFK 50-mile race in November. And I plan to do a few more half-IRONMANs.
Follow Sika’s journey on her Instagram page @sikahenry, and be sure to follow her first race as a pro at REV3Williambsurg on June 27. To learn about USA Triathlon’s efforts to foster Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access in multisport, visit usatriathlon.org/thrive.