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Earlier this year, Sika Henry qualified for her elite license, becoming the first known Black female pro triathlete – a long-time goal that required overcoming a horrific accident back in 2019. This past weekend, Henry made her pro debut at Augusta 70.3.
But it’s a fact many new pros have to learn the hard way: the pro race is very different from the age-group race. We talked to Henry to get some insight into what that transition is like, what to expect, and what advice she’d give someone looking to move up to the elite field. Plus, even if the race didn’t go the way she wanted, she put herself out there to set an example for other Black athletes looking to follow in her footsteps.
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How’d it go?
Oh, I had a bad race. 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 in the cold water ever. I struggled to stay warm – not so much in the water, but actually after I got out of the water and onto the bike. I was shivering on the bike for a really long time and, talking to my coach later, I think that just took a lot of energy out of me.
It was weird and tough not seeing any other women all day, and then having the top age-group men flying by me. I didn’t even think about the age-group men, beforehand. With the cold, I struggled to produce power, not on the flats at first, but when we hit the hills. I literally biked minutes slower than I have before. And once a few of the top age-group women passed me, I really struggled mentally.
Usually I’m going for one of those top age-group spots, and now they’re passing me. I struggled with imposter syndrome, do I belong here, all of that. All the fears you have going into your first pro race kind of happened to me. Will I be last out of the water? Will there be anyone with me? I had multiple moments of ‘I should just pull over and stop,’ but I tried to stay positive, like maybe it’ll turn around, you gotta finish this damn thing, you just never know.
And finishing matters. I don’t want to ever be looked at as a quitter.
It was a very hard, humbling experience. I have a lot of respect for the women putting themselves out there; the top age-groupers moving up to the pro race. It’s a different experience. Last time here, in Augusta, I was on the podium and winning awards. Now it’s like I’m starting over again. But I’m happy I put myself out there, I worked for this experience, for this. I always wanted to see a Black woman on the pro start line, and it got to be me.
What was different about being in the pro race v. age-group?
It was intimidating. I was standing at the start next to Ellie Salthouse and Mirinda Carfrae. The whole wetsuit temperature thing was different, I didn’t realize the temperature cut-off was 71 degrees. I didn’t think about the whole thing with age group men passing you, even though it’s a rolling start. That’s actually the first time I’ve ever swim alone for 1.2 miles, and I started having a hard time sighting too. It was a mess.
As soon as I finished I thought: I was so wrong, looking back at other races when I was like ‘Oh, I beat some pros.’ No, I didn’t. It’s a completely different race.
The pluses, though, I did like that I didn’t have to go searching for my bike since it was on the pro rack!
What would you tell someone doing their first pro race?
Don’t have times in mind or splits or places. It’s a totally new race, a different way of racing. It’s like doing your first triathlon again. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Before, it was more like you stick to your own plan and see where it gets now. But when you’re in the pro field you have to stick your nose in the actual race and if you don’t make it, don’t make the swim or whatever, then you’re by yourself.
Was the pro field welcoming?
The pre-race pro meeting, whatever they call it, that was very intimidating, but everybody was extremely friendly. When I was racking my bike, I did talk to a few of the pros, and they had some advice for me. Even Rinny, when we were lining up on the pontoon, was like, ‘Hey, it’s your first race, right?’ Lots of people reached out later too, some people are very focused in the moment, but I talked to them later, and I appreciated that.
What do you think you learned?
You really do have to go into the race with a goal in mind. My motivation was so focused on getting my pro card, and I never really thought past that. Before, I was there to come in top three amateur, so I had to go all in. With this one, I just went in more blindly, and you really need to have a race plan. I should have had more ways to push myself, what do I focus on if I’m by myself, if I’m last out of the water, I never really thought about that.
I was emotionally drained going into the race too, which I haven’t really talked about. I saw USAT post on Instagram ahead of the race, congratulating me, and it made me start to choke up, but in a good way, like this is my moment that I worked so hard for, who knows who else this could influence, who will see me. It’s been great, but it also takes an emotional toll to put yourself out there all the time. Even the comments and the conversations, I’m happy people are talking about it though. I checked in with my coach before the race and he was like, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m tired.’ And he was like, well, let’s deal with that after the race.
I was looking at some of the pros on SportsStats after, and you’ll see that they’ve been doing this for ten years or something, and they didn’t used to be that good. I think it’s easy to look at where people are now and forget anything they went through to get to this point, that it didn’t just happen overnight.
I’m doing JFK50, my first ultra. Then I think I need to find races that play more to my strengths. Heat is a great equalizer, and I tend to do well in heat. I’d like to look at more international races. I liked going to race in Cancun. But I don’t know if I’m going to do another triathlon this year, maybe some early season races in the spring. This one took a lot out of me.