Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
When Ayana Williams’ history teacher suggested she and her friends do a triathlon, they thought he was a bit out there. After some research, they discovered something even more surprising: 13% of triathletes are athletes of color, and only 2% are Black.
“We were shocked,” Williams says. “We learned that it came down to a lot of systematic issues due to the expense of the sport.”
Williams, along with her two close friends Leticia DoNascimento and Jayda Costa, started an Instagram page in January 2022 with the goal to diversify triathlon. With just a few taps on a social media app, the Connecticut-based Naugatuck High School Triathlon team was born. They began training in March for the season ahead.
It wasn’t long before they came across Sika Henry, the first U.S Black female professional triathlete. They reached out to her through social media, curious about her perspective in the sport.
“She became our inspiration,” Williams says. “She is always saying, ‘Be the change and be the representation,’ and we adore her for that. That has turned into our goal too.”
Henry was impressed by how mature and organized the girls were, already taking the initiative to form a team, coordinate training with a coach, fundraise, and put a goal race on the calendar.
“I wanted to do anything I could to help them,” Henry says. “After all, this is why I made my journey so public. For me, it felt good to pay it forward and coordinate with my sponsors to help [Naugatuck High School] compete in triathlon.”
In April 2022, Varlo, a performance apparel company started by Soj Jibowu (and a sponsor of Henry’s), launched their mentorship program, and invited Naugatuck students to be a part. This created a strong bond between the students and Varlo’s roster of professional female athletes.
“As a brand, it’s essential that we do our part to help grow the sport of triathlon and provide pathways for newcomers and emerging athletes.” Jibowu says.
Through their Instagram presence and guidance from Henry, the team was able to get support from other companies, including Blueseventy for swim gear and Saris for bike trainers.
On June 18, 2022, after training for about three months, Williams, DoNascimento and Costa tackled their first triathlon at the Pat Griskus Sprint Triathlon in Middlebury, CT. While triathlon is largely an individual sport, the trio chose to compete side by side. The announcer called them the “dream team,” as they crossed the finish line together in their matching Varlo race suits.
“We all have different strengths, but it is nice to have the companionship,” Williams says.
The young triathletes finished a handful of other local events during the summer, including the Niantic Bay Triathlon, where they competed as a relay team, and the Westport Triathlon, where they raced side-by-side yet again. Toward the end of the summer, they had another Naugatuck High School student join the team: Matt Davey.
While the four current athletes are all seniors and their time at Naugatuck High School will come to an end this May, their work in diversifying the sport will continue. They are all looking to compete as a part of clubs or teams that their colleges offer.
But the team will live on after they take off for college. The students have inspired their younger siblings, who are currently freshmen and sophomores at Naugatuck High School, to take the reins of the team this spring. In addition to racing as representatives of their school, they’ll continue the team’s fundraising efforts to give students a chance to tri. In handing the team over to new athletes, they will also hand over the mission: “Be the change.”
“Honestly, I’m just so proud of them,” Henry says. “They have a bright future ahead of them. Mature, poised, driven young women – their story is incredibly inspirational.”