Inspiration by the Mile: Sika Henry Became the First Black Pro Woman Triathlete in the US
On Sept. 26, Sika Henry made her pro debut at the Ironman 70.3 Augusta, marking her first official race as the United States' very first Black professional woman triathlete. She wrote on Instagram after the fact that the race "humbled" her and that it was a rough day, but "I truly believe representation matters and I'm happy I put myself out there on the pro start line." Ahead, you'll find an interview with Henry conducted earlier this year and published on June 23.
Sika Henry remembers setting a goal back in 2017. It wasn't just any goal, though — she strived to become the first Black professional woman triathlete in the US. In May of this year, she finished third in the amateur division at Challenge Cancun, which qualified her for a USA Triathlon elite license, meaning she is officially going pro (these licenses require eligibility renewal after three years).
Going through a serious bike crash in 2019 during an Ironman competition changed her perspective on competing and also made her want to go pro even more. "No one ever thinks it's going to happen to them," Henry told POPSUGAR. "But then it happened to me, and I realized how strong and resilient I was. I race differently now. I'm grateful for every time, every opportunity I get to race."
Henry was a high jumper at Tufts University, and she wasn't so keen on long distance running. However, seeing people's faces as they crossed the Boston Marathon finish line piqued her interest. And, when she sets her sights on doing insert-any-target-objective-here, she'll really do it. "Every time I try something, I always want to see how much I can get out of myself," Henry stated. First it was becoming an All-American in the high jump. She conquered that. Then, it was breaking three hours in the marathon. She conquered that. Next, it was turning pro in triathlon — and with dedicated training sessions . . . well, you know.
Many Black athletes have inspired Henry. There are Olympic marathoners Meb Keflezighi and the late Ted Corbitt, the former of whom she met in 2015 upon attending a National Black Marathoners Association banquet. Henry also met Marilyn Bevans, the first Black woman to break three hours in a marathon, and another person she named as her inspiration was Dominique Dawes, the first Black woman athlete to win an individual Olympic artistic gymnastics medal. "The history behind people like me in these types of sports inspired me," Henry said, and that's what she wishes to represent for others.
"It all starts sometimes with just seeing somebody that looks like you."
Henry wrote in a personal essay published on Bicycling.com that in order for Black communities and communities of color to become more involved in triathlon, there needs to be safer infrastructure and increased access to lessons in swimming, for example. She added in our interview that further finical support for existing grassroots efforts such as Diversity in Aquatics and Black Kids Swim is essential.
On an individual level, Henry is devoted to being the best role model she can be. For one, she does public speaking engagements at schools. "It's sharing my story. So many people of color are really not that aware of triathlon. And it's like, if you don't know what it is, you can't do it," she said, adding, "You know the saying, 'If you can see it, you can achieve it'? Or 'If you see it, you can be it'? It all starts sometimes with just seeing somebody that looks like you." Having that role model — witnessing their success firsthand — can really shape your life, Henry said.
Henry, too, works a full-time marketing job, and she has learned how to balance those responsibilities with her training schedule. Getting a sweat session in during her lunch and a second one in that evening is what she's used to at this point; then, she'll do a bulk of her weekly workout volume — completing 100 miles on the bike or a 20-mile run — on the weekends. It's not perfect, but it works.
Through it all, Henry still doesn't feel like she's ever had a perfect race either, and that keeps her coming back for more. "There are so many little things that I still need to work on," she said. "Something as simple as a transition, like going from the swim to the bike or the bike to the run. There are so many moving parts, moving pieces, in triathlon." She grows stronger mentally and physically as the years go by.
Henry's debut race as a professional triathlete most likely won't take place until the fall with, perhaps, the Ironman 70.3 Augusta. From there, she aspires to try new races; she signed up for the JFK 50 road race this November, for example. In 2013, she started a blog to document her running and triathlon journey, and after that qualifying race in May, she penned her very last post. It's bittersweet, though she'll be documenting her next adventures as a pro athlete on social media. "I'm glad to be signing off on a positive note!" Henry wrote. "But before I go, let me tell you how a dream, one goal, finally came true."