By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
The road ahead of triathlete Sika Henry hadn’t been an easy one. She suffered a serious bike crash in 2019. The pandemic put races on hold.
But on May 2, the 37-year-old Montclair native made history — becoming the first Black woman in the United States to achieve pro status, earning her USA Triathlon Elite license. She follows in the steps of Max Fennell of Pennsylvania, who in 2014 became the first African-American triathlete to get his pro card.
African Americans make up just a tiny percentage of triathletes, according to professional associations. Of the 12,293 respondents to USA Triathlon’s 2016 membership survey, just 120 described themselves as African American. The overwhelming majority, 10,379, were white.
Henry grew up in Upper Montclair and attended Mount St. Dominic Academy in Caldwell. Her first job was at Applegate Farms Ice Cream, making ice cream sundaes at the age of 16.
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Henry remembers watching gymnast Dominique Dawes in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games. Dawes became the first Black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.
“I thought she was awesome. I could see myself in her,” Henry said.
Henry’s parents put her in a YMCA gymnastics program. She took up swimming, and was on the varsity team at Mount St. Dominic. At Tufts University in Massachusetts, she joined the track and field team through an open tryout; her height of 5 feet, 10 inches proved an asset. Henry became a National Collegiate Athletic Association All American in that sport.
“For somebody who is just a walk on, it was pretty miraculous the accomplishments that I had in college,” Henry said.
Henry moved back to Montclair after graduating college and worked in the financial district in Manhattan before relocating to Newport News, Virginia, where she’s a now full-time analyst for Ferguson Enterprises.
Henry said the demands of working in the financial district kept her from working out, and she fell out of shape. But she’d always wanted to compete in a marathon. In 2008, she signed up for one in Atlantic City.
“I ended up walking and puking and it was just a hot mess,” Henry said. “I still somehow broke four hours my first time. So, I was like, ‘If I train properly, I might be able to be okay at this.’”
While working in Virginia, though busy, Henry found the time to continue training. She competed in 5K runs and half-marathons. A new goal came to her mind: a triathlon. With a background in swimming and running, all she needed was a bike.
“At the time I was going through a really bad breakup and I was kind of depressed. So, I just wanted something to take my mind off that,” Henry said. “There was a local sprint triathlon. I had weeks to prepare for it. I bought a bathing suit, a mountain bike, some goggles. And I’m like, ‘All right, I’m just going to do this totally unprepared.’ And I came in, like, close to the last place. But it was so much fun.”
In that race, Henry noticed the lack of diversity of the participants. Only one other person of color was in the race.
“I started researching and I saw that there has never been an African American woman who was a pro in triathlon,” Henry said. She had a long-term goal.
She got faster — her 5K time got down to 18 minutes. She ran the inaugural Newport News One City Marathon in 2015, and won. Henry also won the year after. Henry completed her first half-IRONMAN triathlon in 2016, and the next year qualified for the half-IRONMAN World Championship. She competed in an IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman in Maryland — the name refers to the total distance in the race, in miles — and placed 11th in the amateur category, missing pro status by 10 minutes.
In 2019, Henry trained all winter for the IRONMAN 70.3 Texas. Then, in the bicycle portion of the race, she crashed.
“I was going over 25 miles per hour, and another competitor swerved into me. I went to the pavement face first,” Henry said. She was hospitalized.
In her personal blog, Henry writes: “My nose was broken, my teeth were cracked and a few were loose, and they needed to keep stitching my face (34 stitches in total).”
Henry said it was difficult coming back from that — “emotionally, just traumatizing.” But she knew it wasn’t the end.
Five months after her accident, Henry signed up for a qualifier race in Augusta, Georgia, the second-largest half-IRONMAN. She came in sixth place, only missing pro status by three minutes. She kept competing, but when 2020 arrived, most races stopped due to the pandemic. But Henry stayed fit throughout. She did a virtual ultramarathon, a 50K.
Henry signed up for the Challenge Cancun Triathlon. On May 2, the morning of the race, the weather was windy and the water was choppy. It was one of the slowest swims Henry ever made, she said.
Pushing forward, she told herself: “Try not to think too much about that. Get on your bike.”
Leading up to the race she rode for 80 miles every Saturday. But the ride was rough. Her bike broke after hitting a pothole.
She’d lost three minutes — the same window of time that cost her a pro card in Augusta. But Henry fixed her bike and pushed ahead to the running course.
Henry saw other competitors slowing down and starting to walk. She went all out. She even passed her friend, Alicia, who’d been way ahead of her earlier on.
“I knew when I saw her on the last lap, I was like, ‘OK, she’s most likely in the top three. If I can pass her, there’s a chance I might have my pro card,” Henry said.
She finished as the third-place amateur, and qualified for her pro card.
“My dad and I couldn’t believe it,” Henry said.
She said the win is about more than a personal athletic goal.
“I learned of the importance of representation and image and diversity after my accident,” Henry said. “All the messages that I received and people literally would message me and say, ‘I enrolled my kids in some lessons because of you.’”
You can follow Henry’s journey on her blog, at why-i-run.blogspot.com, and on Instagram as @sikahenry. You can also find her doing track workouts at Brookdale Park, running around the neighborhood on Park Street, Grove Street and Bloomfield Avenue whenever she comes home to visit her family.