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Monday, June 24, 2024

‘I’m not going to just give up’

During her training to become the first female African American professional triathlon, Sika Henry was reminded of the talks she had with her family about race when she was a youngster.

Her parents told Henry and her brother, Nile, tales of their paternal grandpa, who competed in track and field and football in the 1920s. Henry and Nile were fascinated by the stories. Because to segregation, he was denied the opportunity to play in the National Football League and instead chose to pursue a career as a jazz musician.

Henry clung to this recollection for the rest of his life. She utilises it as inspiration in her triathlon quest, a sport in which she is one of just a few competitors who look like her.

In one conversation, he told Henry’s father, “‘I never believed I’d see the day when Blacks could play professional sports,'” he recalls.

Even Henry had doubts about her ability to compete professionally in her sport at various points along the way.

According to U.S.A. Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, there has been no other African-American woman to achieve an elite licence — which grants triathletes their professional status — in triathlon prior to Henry’s accomplishment. In 2019, she suffered a horrific cycling collision that occurred during a race. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of racing for a year, she had to find other methods to remain motivated. After years of pushing herself to the limits of what she believed she was capable of in pursuit of her ambition, she began to doubt if it was all worth it.

Distance running used to be something Henry despised. Upon enrolling at Tufts University, a Division III institution located outside of Boston, she competed in the high jump, as well as races in the 200, 400, and 4×400 metres. She was the first female athlete to walk on to the track and field team at Tufts. Henry’s coach recommended that she run three miles once or twice a week in order to prepare for the 400-meter dash. She would squirm if she were that far away. “I felt it was just so lengthy and uncomfortable,” Henry expressed his displeasure.

Dorsey is the executive director of the International Association of Black Triathletes, a non-profit organisation that offers opportunities for minority youngsters to participate in triathlon. In recent years, the United States of America Triathlon (USA Triathlon) has experimented with a variety of alternative strategies, including an engagement programme for historically Black schools and institutions targeted at increasing the number of Black collegiate athletes participating in triathlon.

Several H.B.C.U. triathlon programmes have been established since the program’s inception, with the most recent being at Hampton University in 2018 and the most recent at Delaware State University in 2020. Dorsey, on the other hand, believes that there hasn’t been a significant influence on diversity in the sport as a whole.

At approximately 25 miles per hour, Henry swerved to avoid colliding with another biker who had merged into her path without looking during the 2019 Ironman 70.3 Galveston race (a popular middle-distance triathlon in Texas consisting of 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling, and 13.1 miles of running). She lost control of her vehicle and smashed into a roadside barrier. The force of the crash drove her hurtling onto the pavement, where she was struck unconscious. She had broken her nose and damaged a few of her teeth in the process. More than 30 sutures were utilised on her face by the doctors. She had road rash all over her body, including her face.

In order to avoid being too focused on her performance when she returned to training, Henry’s coach, Jonathan Caron, whom she credits with rescuing her from a “broken and psychologically wrecked” condition, encouraged her not to become overly focused on her performance. Caron eased her into things by taking her for a stroll around the track every now and then.

In September, Henry competed in his first race as a professional triathlete. She described it as “one of her worst experiences.” It was tough to adjust to racing as a professional versus other professionals rather than amateurs since the learning curve was steep. But completing her first race as a professional triathlete was a welcome relief after a long period of uncertainty. As part of her training for the 2022 season, Henry raced in the JFK 50 Mile on Saturday, which was her first ultramarathon and her penultimate event of the year. The season will be her first full season as a professional triathlete and will take place in New York City.

With this accomplishment behind her, Henry now has the opportunity to consider what she wants to do next in her sport.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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