I can still vividly remember waking up in the emergency room in April of last year. My goal, to become the first African American woman to turn pro in the sport of triathlon, was completely shattered after a horrific bike crash while competing in an Ironman 70.3 race in Texas. Hearing the doctors discuss the severity of my injuries—including a broken nose, loose teeth, and a lacerated face that would require more than 30 stitches—led me to one thought: I quit.
After CT scans, an MRI, and surgery, I spent what felt like an eternity alone in my hospital bed. Instead of having flashbacks to the race and crash, I thought a lot about my journey in the sport.
As a collegiate high jumper for Tufts University, I never envisioned life as an endurance athlete—I thought the mile was a long distance event. But like most, a goal of completing one marathon soon turned into a lifestyle of spending Saturdays at local road races, and running long on Sundays. I noticed East Africans dominating the marathon scene as well as Caucasian distance runners in the mix, but I didn’t see people that looked like me: an African-American woman.
As I transitioned into swim-bike-run events, I learned that African Americans only make up 0.5 percent of participants in the sport of triathlon. At my very first triathlon (a sprint) in 2013, there was only one other person of color at the race venue.
This sparked my curiosity. I wanted to understand why there were so few people of color in triathlon, competitive cycling, and swimming, so I joined organizations like the National Black Marathoners Association (NBMA) and Black Triathletes Association (BTA). Through the NBMA I learned that civil rights activist Dick Gregory broke the high-school mile record, but it wasn’t acknowledged because records set at Black state meets in the 1950s didn’t count. Once schools were integrated, he became the first African American to win a cross country state championship in Missouri. Hearing stories about Dick and Ron Gregory, Ted Corbitt, and Marilyn Bevans inspired me to chase PRs at the longer distances, eventually leading to two marathon wins.
While it’s easy to assume the disparity in racial demographics are a result of choice—‘Blacks prefer basketball over cycling’—it’s deeper than that. Though we are living in a post-civil rights era, and participation in sports like cycling, swimming, and triathlon is seemingly open to everyone regardless of their racial background, the results of historical and systemic exclusion are still felt today.
According to The League of American Bicyclists, many communities of color lack safe streets for biking. “Equitable access to safe infrastructure makes biking safer for those who are already riding and helps to get those who want to use a bike for transportation out on the streets.” What’s more, people of color often live in areas where air pollution levels are high, which is can negatively affect their health, according to the American Lung Association.
And, according to research conducted by researchers at USA Swimming, about 64 percent of African Americans lack basic swim skills, a statistic deeply tied to racial segregation: Because African Americans weren’t allowed to swim in public pools, they would go to lakes with no lifeguards which would often lead to drownings. Parents inevitably became protective and guarded their kids against swimming. Statistics show that children who can’t swim typically have parents who can’t swim.
Similar to how I found inspiration to become a more competitive long distance runner from athletes I could identify with, the lack of diversity in triathlon (especially at the elite level) inspired me to pursue qualifying for my pro card in hopes that I might offer some inspiration to a new generation of athletes. But as I laid in the hospital, then spent weeks at my parents’ home getting shuttled to daily doctor appointments, I truly began to question the importance of my athletic goals and how much being an advocate for diversity and inclusion mattered.
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“You are a big inspiration to me!”
While recuperating at my parents’ house, my mother brought me a stack of mail. I received thoughtful cards from family, friends, and coworkers, but what really touched me were the hand-written letters and beautifully drawn pictures from children I had never met. In that moment, I realized the power of image. You never know who is watching, cheering from afar, possibly inspired to learn how to swim, become a competitive cyclist, or a future ultramarathon runner because they saw someone they could identify with. So I set a goal of getting fit enough to race the Ironman 70.3 Augusta, Georgia, in September 2019—five months after my accident.
Once I was cleared to ride outside again, I picked a day when there was a century race going on. I went out during the tail end of it hours after it began, while there was still some crew support on the road. I wasn’t sure how I was going to respond mentally to being back on a bike, and I needed reassurance that there would be medical support.
I ended up riding 60 miles that day, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Between April and September my coach, Jonathan Caron, and I took it a day at a time. Some days I shocked myself with how comfortable and strong I felt, and other days were pure hell filled with self-pity, thoughts of quitting, and crying in my cubicle at work.
Then race day came, and I came in 6th place among amateur women (missing out on qualifying for my pro card by less than 4 minutes) at the second largest Half Ironman in the country. Two weeks later, I flew to Hawaii to participate in the 2019 Ironman World Championships in Kona.
After crossing the finish line 140.6 miles later, I told my dad that I nearly quit after I dismounted the bike. I couldn’t fathom running a marathon after swimming and biking on such a grueling course. He asked what kept me going. “It was two things,” I replied. “First, seeing Roderick Sewell Jackson.” As I sat in the bike-to-run transition tent thinking of every excuse possible to quit, I could not erase the image of the young African American double amputee athlete with the look of determination on his face. “Second, there were so many Black parents and their kids tracking me live—I had to finish.”
With such few role models in the sport, it is no surprise that black children gravitate towards sports like basketball and football, and rarely envision themselves as a pro cyclist or Olympic swimmer.
I recently asked Skylar Smith, a 2020 Howard University graduate and former swim team captain who will participate in the Gorée Project—a cultural exchange that prepares two African-American swimmers for a long distance swim alongside Senegalese swimmers to retrace the route of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade—what influenced her decision to swim in college. She enthusiastically replied, “That was the year Simone Manuel won Olympic gold in my event: the 100 free.”
Whether it’s Manuel in the pool, Justin Williams on a bike, or Joseph Gray on a trail, having role models in sports that significantly lack diversity can be a powerful tool in breaking stereotypes. Awareness or admiration of a competitive swimmer can lead to an increase of black children learning the life-saving skill of swimming. Seeing more people of color on a bike or outside for a morning run—like Ahmaud Arbery—can decrease the racist stereotype that we are a threat.
While it would have been easy to stow my bike away and leave this sport behind, I came back because I believe in the importance of inclusion—investing in recreational facilities and programs in underserved communities, donating sporting goods, and volunteering your time to speak at low income schools (which statistics show are predominately Black).
Often when I speak of inclusion I get asked, “Who is excluding you?” I believe that structural barriers that disproportionately affect people of color do limit access to sports like cycling and swimming. I hope that my partnership with companies like HOKA ONE ONE, who donate prizes when I speak at elementary schools in inner cities, and Zoot Sports, who is supporting the Gorée Project, and of course my personal goal to turn pro in triathlon, will help diversify the sport.
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Sika Henry is a customer insights project manager for Ferguson Enterprises. She has a degree in economics from Tufts University where she was a collegiate high jumper. Sika is also a two-time marathon winner, 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship finisher, and 2019 Ironman World Championship finisher. She is passionate about increasing diversity in the sport of triathlon where African Americans make up only 0.5 percent of the sport.
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