Sadé Smith dreams of going to the Olympics. After taking up triathlon around the age of 8, Smith has traveled the nation and parts of the world competing, finishing as high as 9th in her age group at the ITU Duathlon World Championships in Spain last April.
Just like so many of the competitors at her level in the sport, Smith, 18, is driven, talented, and ambitious. There is one striking difference, however. She is black. And when she joins the East Tennessee University triathlon team this fall, Smith will be one of just a handful of athletes of color competing in the sport at a collegiate level.
Now offered as a women’s varsity sport at 35 institutions across the NCAA’s three divisions, triathlon’s college program has been working its way towards official NCAA status as an emerging sport for women. While there are only four or five athletes of color in these programs, the grants and opportunities connected to the collegiate triathlon scene could help diversify the sport.
It’s no secret that triathlon is decidedly white. According to USA Triathlon, less than 1 percent of athletes who compete in the sport are African-Americans. This is not new news. Diversity initiatives are already in the works at USA Triathlon, including offering grants to clubs serving areas of lower socioeconomic status, and Dr. Tekemia Dorsey was elected this past fall as the first African-American to serve on the USAT board. Ironman has also announced its Race for Change initiative, which aims to support diversity and inclusiveness in its workforce, among athletes and race community, and in its host communities. But, the numbers overall still remain alarmingly lopsided.
“Racism touches almost every part of American life, including triathlon, and we have to do our part,” said USAT CEO Rocky Harris. “Not just posting a statement, but making every decision through the lens of diversity and inclusion.”
To that end, USAT launched a collaborative campaign with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In October 2018, the USAT Foundation awarded Hampton University a $225,000 grant to take on women’s triathlon as a varsity sport, with the money to be distributed over five years to help fund travel, equipment, coaching, and scholarships. And this past April Delaware State became the second HBCU to set up a women’s team, slated to begin competition in the fall season.
The return-on-investment into HBCU programs is multi-layered, said Harris. There’s the obvious expectation of attracting more black athletes, starting at a young age, and potentially lifting those athletes to the elite level. And there’s the hope that the communities surrounding both universities will embrace triathlon–inspiring other black athletes to join the sport.
“If athletes don’t see themselves having an opportunity to get a college degree, or go to the Olympics, the dream ends pretty early on,” said Harris. “The NCAA program in general, and in particular the HBCU initiative, allows young athletes to reach for something bigger.”
Harris admits that the triathlon programs at Hampton and Delaware State will take a couple of years to get their footing. Case in point: Hampton was not able to field a team last fall. Closures due to COVID-19 have also proved problematic for the upcoming fall season as well, as coach Dr. Jodi Jensen has not been able to bring recruits on campus.
“It’s been a tough sell,” admitted Jensen of her recruiting efforts. “Many of the students I speak with have never heard of triathlon. Or they are just learning to swim, or if they do know how, they’re afraid of open water.”
The challenges surrounding swimming in many predominantly black communities have persisted for decades, since people of color were excluded from public pools due to segregation. Today, we still see the ripple effects of these barriers, with just 1 percent of almost 400,000 swimmers registered with USA Swimming being African-American. And, of course, this has a direct impact on triathlon, too: Of the three athletes who have thus far signed on to compete for Hampton, only one has competitive swimming experience.
“Running and cycling…those are things that almost anyone can do,” said Jensen, who is working with local swim clubs to identify talent and establish a pipeline to her squad at Hampton. “But swimming is a completely different beast.”
Learn-to-swim programs, as well as funding for swim and tri clubs, in predominantly black communities are established methods of bringing athletes into the pool–and possibly to triathlon. The HBCU programs can further propel that mission, said Dorsey who, as the founder of International Association for Black Triathletes, has introduced the sport to dozens of inner-city youth in Baltimore. “These are the kids who could potentially benefit from funding at HBCU,” she said. “Now we can say, ‘Look, if you learn to swim, if you work hard enough, you could go to college on a scholarship.’ That’s motivating.”
But there is a disconnect, she said, in that many living in urban communities are just not as aware of triathlon or of the opportunities for athletes, like available funding to ease the financial strain of race entry and the cost of gear. “Increased communication and programming will help,” she said. “But these kids also need to see someone in the sport who looks like them.”
Sika Henry, a 35-year-old from Virginia who is aspiring to become the sport’s very first black female pro, hopes that all of the NCAA programs will boost athletes like Smith and enable them to follow in her footsteps to the upper echelon of triathlon.
“All it takes is one person. In tennis, there were the Williams sisters and now you see Coco Gauff. There’s Simone Manuel breaking barriers in swimming. Simone Biles in gymnastics,” she said. “The more attention and exposure strong black female athletes receive, the more young athletes will identify with them. Suddenly, the thought of being the best in a predominantly white sport doesn’t seem so strange.”
Like Dorsey, Henry is optimistic that increased opportunities for athletes on the collegiate level will reveal and develop untapped talent. “The girls who otherwise may not have considered triathlon as an option will gravitate towards it because it helps pay for school,” she said. “And then when collegiate nationals is showcasing a mix of people versus being all white, I think it’ll encourage others to join in.”
Not to mention that those who do join in get to be in the exclusive–and powerful–position of being a part of history as the very first black triathletes to compete on the collegiate level. This is an honor not lost on athletes like Smith, who dreams of becoming the first black Olympian in the sport. Or, like Kiarah Higgins, a rising sophomore at Transylvania University in Kentucky, who last year was just one of two black athletes to compete across the three divisions at the NCAA national championships.
“When I go to a race and notice I’m one of a few black people, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. It makes me feel empowered,” said Higgins. “It makes me want to do my absolute best and have my presence felt. Because I am doing something incredible by being one of the first black athletes in college triathlon.”