Sika Henry: USA's first Black female pro triathlete on how community support after horror accident stopped her from quitting
In 2019, Sika Henry started Ironman 70.3 Texas in peak form following months of intense training with the sole objective of being fast enough to secure her license to become a professional triathlete.
But the path to reach her goal was not exactly what she had in mind, and following months of recovery from a major setback, she would later discover she had succeeded in more ways than one.
Henry crashed out midway through the half ironman in Texas and was taken to hospital with severe injuries from a bike collision with another competitor. Her dream of becoming professional hung in the balance, but it was only during her recovery that it dawned on her how important representation was as one of few Black athletes in the sport aiming to turn professional. She was a role model and a source of inspiration for children without even realising it.
"So here I am absolutely flying about four miles into the race at about 25mph and another competitor didn't bother to look behind when they were passing; and I pretty much hit the giant orange cone in the middle of the road that separated us from traffic. I hit it head on and obviously I don't remember anything," Henry recalls to ESPN.
She woke up hours later in the emergency room with a long list of injuries.
"I broke my nose, had to get a splint in my mouth to hold my teeth in place," she added. "I couldn't eat solid food for about a month. My face was completely lacerated. I had to have it stitched back together with over 40 stitches to six sections of my face. I had road rash absolutely everywhere. I got infections [in the wounds] and had to get antibiotics."
Henry swiftly left hospital and spent her recovery with her parents in New Jersey awaiting oral surgery and plastic surgeons since she struggled to look after herself.
"It was an emotional rollercoaster," she says. "When I saw what I looked like in the mirror I was like 'hell no, I am done, this is crazy. I am never doing this [sport] again!'"
After blogging about her racing for a few years, Henry had built up an online following. When people heard about the crash they sent flowers, notes and letters.
During our Zoom interview she reaches on the counter behind her... "I actually still have it up here from kids -- they drew notes and mailed them to me: 'Get better Sika,' 'I hope you come back to the sport.' And I was like 'oh my God, people are actually following this and it's important -- image and representation and being one of the few people of colour in this sport trying to achieve this, it matters.' That was a reality check for me, that people truly were following my story.
"Diversity and representation was important and then when I had my crash I was like maybe it's not... does this really matter? I don't think so. But then reading the notes and being part of organisations like Black Triathletes Association and National Black Marathon Runners Association and people from those groups saying 'Gosh, I was really hoping she was going to be the one in the sport to be the first Black female to do it.' I thought 'wow it really does matter'."
Although triathlon is largely equal in terms of the gender split among participants, and prize money available, the stark under-representation of people of colour was immediately noticeable, and it piqued her interest. "I saw that there had only been one professional African American triathlete, Max Fennell, and there has never been a female," she says. "I was still slow but I was like 'that would be so cool if one day that was me'."
Figures from a 2020 sample survey by the Triathlon Industry Association showed that only around 2% of UK triathletes are Black, Asian or of a mixed ethnic group, while in the United States, USA Triathlon said a survey of members showed only 0.5% of the same demographics. However there is no data for people who participate in the sport on a global level. Furthermore, research conducted by USA Swimming found 64% of African Americans lack basic swimming skills.
"Systemic racism has a lot to do with it -- us not being allowed access to pools and then we would go to creeks/lakes and there weren't lifeguards and Black kids would drown... and how that's been passed down generation to generation," she says. "It was interesting reading and learning these things, and I wanted to break that barrier."
Henry's parents had a swimming pool in the back garden and were adamant their children and their friends learnt how to swim. However, during swim meets at high school, Henry was in the minority. "I was the only Black person on the team and when I went to swim competitions I was always one of the few -- there might have been one other -- so it's something I've always been aware of and used to. And in some ways it uniquely prepared me for being in the sport of triathlon and not feeling uncomfortable."
Tony Brown, founder of Black Triathletes Association, who supported Henry and Fennell from the beginning, told ESPN that Henry has been an inspiration and many members in the community have pushed themselves further in the sport because of her story. Brown says the group has grown into something much bigger and become global, and has encouraged more people to diversify into triathlon.
"Not a lot of people of colour participate in this sport, and you can feel very isolated when you go to a race," he said. "When we first started, we thought like 'this is us' -- there was just going to be like 600 of us. Within in a year it grew to 2,000. And what we found was that there were a lot of runners that wanted to do multi-sport but didn't know how to swim. So we would start these relay teams where we had one person that swam, one person that was cycling, and then a runner would run and then next thing you know, that same runner is now cycling and then they're taking swim classes.
"We've definitely seen a progression of single-sport athletes, whether it's a cyclist or a runner, pick up a second sport and then it morphed into them actually wanting to do a triathlon. That was one of the things we didn't expect. We thought that we were the triathletes and that maybe there would be a few others that we just haven't identified.
"But your presence has made it where we have just kind of shown people that your one sport is not your limit. If you surround yourself with the right people and you do your training, you can probably do any sport and any distance that you put your mind to."
Three days after the crash, Henry signed up for another half ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run). "I think it helped that I never really remembered the crash so I wasn't really nervous to get back on a bike. In some ways that was a blessing in disguise," she says.
With a renewed focus, and fresh mentality, Henry missed out on her pro card a few months later by a frustrating three minutes. Then the goal posts were pushed back further when the coronavirus pandemic cancelled a whole year's worth of racing.
At last, in May 2021 at Challenge Cancun she secured the elusive pro card and she became USA's first Black, female professional triathlete when she raced in Ironman 70.3 Augusta, on Sept. 26. "There were so many times when I felt like it wasn't meant to be," she said, still in awe.
Henry has won a number of marathons and shorter triathlons, and although winning half ironmans as a professional is the ultimate goal for any pro, she remains humble about her objectives to be a role model.
"My first idol was Dominique Dawes, the gymnast. I remember watching the 1996 Olympic games at Atlanta and she was the only Black gymnast at the time. I know how important role models are and I remember flipping around the house pretending that I was her. For me it was seeing someone who looked like me: she achieved that at that level, I want to do that too. The fact that there wasn't a Black pro female triathlete that kids can look up to and aspire to... I was just hoping that maybe one day that will be me."
But, she says, it comes down to inspiration: "I think that we all have these people that inspire us and it doesn't even have to be a colour thing... everyone has their own person.
"Last year at the start of the pandemic, I did a lot of talks at elementary schools in the inner city. A lot of the children have been through so much worse trauma... but it was amazing being able to share my story, coming back from my crash, competing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and showing them that you can get through anything. So it's not even just qualifying for my pro card but I'm grateful for what I have accomplished, that I have more of a platform to get my story out more."
But her brother has different ideas about spreading the word... Henry recalls her Instagram following growing in mysterious numbers after certain races... "My brother is like 'oh yeah I talked [to these people] and told them to follow you.' It's hilarious... we are the only Black folks there so everybody knows them [my family] by the end of the race. Or they'll see me and they're like 'oh those are your parents, right?' And I'm like... 'how could you tell?'"
With a degree in economics, Henry works full-time as project manager, and has no intention of leaving her job for triathlon, although as any triathlete knows, balancing the two is tricky when training can take at least 20 hours a week. "I'm sure I'm going to get my ass kicked, but I'm never one to shy away from competition," she says. "I really like my job, even though I'm super busy balancing both, it still brings some balance to my life. I don't like my life being all work or just all sport, I like having lots of different things going on."
A couple of days after Challenge Cancun, Henry's father, who has recently become an entertaining figure on her Instagram, asked her whether, if she had known what the journey to the pro card would entail, would she still have pursued it? Henry said: "I didn't hesitate and said absolutely. After all this, it's worth this journey....it felt natural and I went with my heart."
But did add: "No more full ironmans. Hell no! It's just awful, like survival. How do people do a marathon after this?"