The term resilience means to become stronger or healthy after something terrible happens, but the word resilience may not be adequate to describe Sika Henry. In 2019 she suffered a traumatic bike accident that would have ended all career goals for most people. However, through grit and determination, Sika defied the odds and traveled a road to recovery.
In 2021, she became the First female African American Triathlete to qualify for her Triathlon Pro Card. Sika was named “Athlete of the Year” as part of the 2020 Outspoken Women in Triathlon Award. She became an All-American in Track and Field while attending Tufts University. Jessica Trombly, Emily Bersin, Rachel Bloom, and Sika Henry set the school record for the 4×400 meter relay at the 2004 Indoor NCAA Championship with a time of 3:54.17. The record remains today.
Last November, Sika departed from her comfort zone to tackle the 59th JFK 50-Mile Run. Despite several falls, she finished with an impressive time of 9:01:36 and had this to say about her performance:
“I read the pre-race article and knew eight women had run in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. I also had a few friends racing that was going for a top ten finish, and they were powerful trails runners. With my background as a triathlete and low run mileage, the place was not my goal. This year, I also put a ton of pressure on myself to qualify for my pro card and have a solid pro debut. I truly wanted to have fun and enjoy the challenge for this race.”
When asked to compare this race to that of a triathlon:
“They are very different events, but the level of effort is comparable. To do well at any endurance event requires a lot of time, dedication, and consistency. When I train for a triathlon, my workouts are heavily bike-focused, while JFK had more of a run focus with some swim and bike cross-training mixed in. However, my nutrition plan was very similar to an Ironman.”
Sika shares the resilience that contributes to her success.
What was the attraction to becoming a triathlete?
At first, it was simply a bucket list item. I had full intentions of being one and done. Then, like most things, I got hooked and wanted to see how much faster I could get.
Did you participate in other sports before making your choice?
I participated in just about every sport growing up. Gymnastics was my first love. I swam all four years of high school competitively and participated in track and field the outdoor season of my senior year. I became an NCAA All-American in Track and Field while earning my degree in Economics from Tufts University. I went to NCAAs as a high jumper and the 4x400m relay. We still hold the indoor and outdoor school records in the relay.
Has there been a point where you wanted to step back from being a triathlete? More often than I care to admit. It is a grueling, time-consuming sport, especially when training at an elite level. Balancing a full-time job with athletics makes me consider stepping back. But the closest I ever got to quitting was after a horrific cycling accident in 2019. I questioned how much being in this sport was genuinely worth it. I regularly must remind myself why I do this. For me, in a sport lacking diversity, the importance of representation is a significant driving factor.
How do you define what a triathlete is?
A triathlete is anyone who completes a swim-bike-run event. Everyone is a triathlete from the sprint distance to the full ironman if they participate.
How did you balance the demands of the training?
It took a couple of years before finding a routine that worked best for my schedule. I’m not a morning person, so I do the first workout on my lunch break and my second workout immediately after work during the week. I do my long rides (60+ miles) and long runs (16+ miles) on the weekend.
What did you give up being successful?
To be successful, you must make sacrifices along the well. My social life has taken a back seat. I’ve declined plenty of happy hour invitations with my coworkers, as well as nights out with friends. As a result, I’ve been single for a long time. I try not to look at it as a sacrifice but as an investment to achieve my goals.
If you were not a triathlete, what other sport would take its place?
I would be a marathoner. I love the simplicity of running and distance running, specifically cathartic. When I retire from competitive sports, I plan to participate in more marathons.
What aspects of your life have changed since turning professional?
Nothing changed in some ways, and in others, everything changed. I still work full time for my company, Ferguson Enterprises, as a Project Manager. I’m still training, racing, and working with my coach, Jonathan Caron, as we prepare for the 2022 season. On the flip side, when I qualified for my pro card, my story gained a ton of publicity. I did interviews with The New York Times and ESPN and was a guest on a range of popular podcasts like REI Wild Ideas Worth Livingand The Fan 104.3 FM Jerry Schemmel’s Amazing Americans. There are request to do some public speaking engagements next year.
What was the feeling of becoming the first female African American professional triathlete?
Initially, there was a sense of relief. It was a goal that I had been publicly chasing for so long. I faced many obstacles, most notably my bike accident in 2019 and then the global pandemic putting a pause on races. When I finally achieved my goal, I felt a mix of emotions, from proud to relieved – proud of the accomplishment and what it could mean for the sport, and relieved that I no longer had to put so much pressure on myself.
What do you consider to be your strongest discipline?
Of the three disciplines, the run comes most naturally to me. I tend to be most competitive off the bike. Mentally I can push hard those last few miles of the run at the end of a triathlon.
What is the weakest, and how do you change that area?
I find the swim the most challenging. Being a successful swimmer has a lot to do with technique (proper stroke, getting a feel for the water). My coach recently increased my training volume from 3 days to 5 days a week. To improve, I need to swim more frequently and improve my stroke. I’m hoping to swim with a master’s team this season. Having a coach on deck will be very helpful.
What are three challenges which you have faced as a triathlete?
The most complex challenge I faced was recovering mentally and physically from my cycling accident in 2019. It took a lot of support from my family, coach, friends, and sponsors to get back to racing.
Staying motivated during the pandemic was also a challenge. All of my scheduled races were canceled. I couldn’t swim because pools were closed, and I avoided group training to stay socially distanced. I worked with my coach during that time to make goals that I could still chase even during the lockdown.
Another huge challenge that I faced, and continue to face, is opposition to my stance on representation and diversity. I don’t expect everyone to understand why it means so much to me, but it is hard when people write nasty, discouraging comments. I’ve seen the impact and importance of role models, especially someone who looks like you are doing extraordinary things.
I hope to be that person for another, you black girl. There are only 0.5% of African Americans in the sport of triathlon, and approximately 64% of African Americans lack basic swimming skills. If I can somehow draw attention to the sport and the importance of learning how to swim, this is all worth it.
What is your strategy when approaching an event?
I rely heavily on my coach, Jonathan Caron, to help me implement the best strategy for an event. He helps me plan everything from nutrition to pacing myself throughout the race. I don’t ever try something new the week of an event. I stick to my routine and listen to my coach.
What is your response to triathletes are not born but are developed?
I believe sports are 90% mental and 10% physical. You can have all the natural talent globally, but you won’t succeed if you aren’t willing to work. To do well in a sport, you must be dedicated and ready to work hard for months and years. I love that saying, “It takes years to be an overnight success.”
What are some changes you would like to see in the sport?
I would love to see more diversity, but the sport will need to be more accessible for that to happen. Triathlon is an expensive sport! I often wonder, “how does a potential world champion from an economically depressed background make it in this sport?”
What was that event where nothing was executed according to your plan?
My first pro race – IRONMAN 70.3 Augusta. It was just a tough day, all day. It wasn’t wetsuit legal for the pros, but it was for age-groupers, and I don’t do well when I’m cold. I struggled to stay warm on the bike and lost energy, and my power output was meager. I began to work with imposter syndrome – “do I belong here.” It was a tough, humbling experience. Everything that could go wrong went wrong in that race.
What is the determination which keeps you in the sport?
I answered this earlier – being an advocate for representation, drawing attention to a sport that could be another option outside of basketball, football, track, etc.
What makes Sika good at what she does, and your philosophy?
I’m not afraid to fail because I know something great will come from the attempt. My philosophy is “always believe something wonderful is about to happen.” Even when a race is going terrible, I know that something positive will come from the experience, and I will be stronger because I endured and pushed through the struggles.
Do you consider the sport to be emotional?
Yes, most endurance sports are very emotional because you are out there racing for hours. You will inevitably go through many highs and lows, and there will be plenty of moments when you will want to stop and quit. I’ve been in the middle of races where I questioned why I signed up for the event. But then you must remind yourself of all the work you put in to prepare yourself for those challenging moments. Therefore, you see a range of emotions when people cross the finish line. They experience a euphoric moment because they overcame many challenges during the races and even in preparation.
What is the feeling you get when you are in the middle of an event?
I think I answered this above – I typically go through highs and lows, question whether I can finish, why I’m doing this, and if I should stop.
What is the fear when you compete?
I will fail or be disappointed in the result. All the time and energy invested in preparing for a race will be a waste if I don’t do well. But then I remember that I’m only human, and not every race will go well. The bad ones make you appreciate the times you have a fantastic race.
How do you process those events which do not meet your expectations?
I look at each race as a learning experience – whether I do well or underperform. There is always a takeaway. I try to keep things in perspective. Not reaching a time goal or placing high does not make me fail. Sometimes I don’t have it on that day. Events that I don’t do well teach me valuable lessons that I can carry into practice or future races. The races I do the worst in teach me the most in some ways.
*If you want to chase your dreams, Like Sika, check out AWN running expert George Banker’s Counting Down Your Dreams
*Portions of this article (by the same author) can be also be found in th February edition of The Runner’s Gazette