The Pioneers Who Inspired Me to Make History
What I’ve learned from African-American trailblazers who paved the way.
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As a young child I can still vividly remember watching the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, mesmerized by Dominique Dawes, as she became the first Black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. I grew up listening to friends talk about their admiration for swimmer Mark Spitz and distance runner Steve Prefontaine, but Dominique was my first sports hero. We now have the likes of Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, but in the ’90s I had never seen a young Black female excel at that level. She was the first of many trailblazers to inspire me to push beyond what I thought was possible in my own athletic journey.
Twent-five years later, I am now a Kona finisher, sub-three-hour marathoner, and ultra-runner. What set me on this path was something my grandfather, Haywood Henry, once said, “I never thought I’d see the day when Blacks could play professional sports.” A standout football player and world class sprinter, my grandfather never got the chance to play in the NFL because of segregation. Thankfully, the world has progressed and proved my grandfather wrong. Blacks in professional sports are abundant, especially in mainstream sports like football and basketball. However, the racial landscape of triathlon still looks quite different.
A meager 0.5% of triathletes are African-American. There has been only one African-American man, Max Fennell, to qualify and race at the professional level. And believe it or not, we are still awaiting a black female pro. That’s what I aspire to achieve in 2021.
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When we look at the evolution of sports it is easy to forget that Blacks were once banned from playing on professional teams. In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, but basketball remained segregated. It wasn’t until the famous all-Black teams, like the Harlem Globetrotters, attracted larger crowds and even beat the NBA champion Lakers that the league eventually lifted its “whites only” policy and began to draft Black players, including former Globetrotter Wilt Chamberlain.
Mainstream sports have taken years to progress, so it is no surprise that triathlon’s history, a relatively young sport which did not make its Olympic debut until 2000, is still being written. My personal athletic aspirations—to qualify for my pro license and increase diversity in triathlon—have been inspired by trailblazers of the past and present. Learning about key moments in the history of sports, from listening to conversations between my father and grandfather and now through firsthand experiences, have guided me on my quest.
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As recently as 2015 I admittedly knew very little about the pioneers of distance running other than Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter. It was by chance that I took a leap of faith and traveled to my first out-of-state race, the Dallas Marathon, at the insistence of Tony Reed, co-founder and president of the National Black Marathoners Association. The night before my race, at the annual banquet, I learned of Ted Corbitt, often referred to as “the father of long-distance running.” He was an ultramarathon pioneer, Olympian, and former U.S. National Marathon Champion. The grandson of slaves, as a collegiate runner for the University of Cincinnati he was sometimes banned from track meets. Corbitt went on to break the American records at multiple distances, including the marathon, 50 miles, and 100 miles. Later in life he co-founded and was the first president of the New York Road Runners. Corbitt also helped plan the New York City Marathon course and created the Master’s division for runners over 40.
Not only did I learn the history of ultrarunning that night, but I met Marilyn Bevans, second place finisher at the 1977 Boston Marathon and the first African-American woman to run under three hours in the marathon. What makes her story even more incredible is that she took up distance running in the 1960s, when the longest race American women were permitted to run was 880 yards. A decade later she joined the Baltimore Road Runners Club, as the only African-American and the only woman, and became a fixture on the marathon circuit with a top 10 world ranking.
The beauty in inspiration is that it helps us see past self-imposed limitations. As a collegiate high jumper, I never envisioned myself as an endurance athlete. It was Marilyn Bevans that inspired me to break three hours in the marathon last year and add my name to a surprisingly short list of African-American women to accomplish this. And most recently, Ted Corbitt’s legacy in distance running gave me the confidence to take up ultrarunning and participate in HOKA’s Project Carbon X 2 event, where I helped pace Nicole Monette to one of the fastest 100K times by an American woman.
From my exposure to our sport’s history I am confident of two things: First, understanding the past can help change the future; Second, the lack of diversity we see now in triathlon is on trajectory to change as trailblazers in each discipline—swim, bike, run—inspire the next generation of athletes.
In 2016 the world watched as Simone Manuel won gold in the 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics. She gave credit to Cullen Jones (a two-time Olympian and the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming), Maritza Correia (the first black American swimmer to set an American record), and Olympic and Stanford teammate Lia Neal for blazing a path for her.
Moments like Manuel’s win and Cullen’s 4x100m relay world record are what helps break down stereotypes and encourages participation in a sport when a staggering 64% of African-Americans lack basic swimming skills. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have ended segregation, but after a century of discrimination and limited pool access, the effects of historical and systemic exclusion are still evident today in sports like swimming. Fortunately, we now have role models competing at the elite level and organizations such as Diversity in Aquatics and Black Kids Swim, whose mission is to provide resources and opportunities to historically underrepresented communities.
Cycling, another sport where we see a lack of black representation on the professional circuit, just got its first African-American female pro cyclist,Ayesha McGowan. As a child Ayesha looked up to sports heroes like Venus and Serena Williams, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, but when she first started racing in 2014 she immediately noticed the lack of diversity in cycling. Now as a pro rider for Liv Racing she has made it her mission to be an advocate for better representation of people of color in cycling and be a role model for young Black girls.
As I write this article I can’t help but notice the impact role models play in inspiring future generations. Seeing the reflection of someone who looks like you breaking barriers, setting records, or winning an Olympic medal can shape your imagination and dreams about what is possible. The past achievements of trailblazers like Marshall “Major” Taylor and Nelson Vails, and the recent accomplishments of professional cyclists Rahsaan Bahati, Justin Williams, and his brother Cory Williams serve as an inspiration for young Black cyclists today.
History and my belief that representation does in fact matter is what kept me on this personal mission to qualify for my pro card in triathlon. A devastating cycling accident in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020 weren’t enough to deter me from the possibility of becoming the first African-American woman to race in the professional field and follow in the footsteps of countless role models before me. My inspiration is inextricably linked to my predecessors—world-class Black athletes who were pioneers in their sports.
Sika Henry is a triathlete and corporate analyst based in Newport News, VA. As a collegiate high jumper, Sika became an NCAA All American in Track and Field while earning her degree in Economics from Tufts University. She is a 2019 Ironman World Championship finisher, 5X Ironman 70.3 age group podium finisher, and a 2X marathon champion. Sika’s goal is to earn her pro card in triathlon and continue being an advocate for diversity and representation in the sport.