Sika Henry is an elite level triathlete with outstanding accomplishments in the sport of triathlon and an important role in the triathlon community. In this week’s Successful Athlete’s Podcast, Sika shares some of her insights into training and racing, her personal progression into triathlon, an inspiring comeback story, and much more.
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Meet Sika Henry
Meet Sika Henry! She’s a two-time marathon champion, holds a personal half-distance triathlon record of 4:49, and an IRONMAN World Championship time of 11:35. She’s six seconds shy of being able to run a sub-three-hour marathon, and she’s on the cusp of being the first African-American female to hold a professional license in triathlon. To put it simply, Sika is really fast.
Sika’s specialty is half-distance triathlons now, although she actually favored much quicker events in high school and college. She was a swimmer for most of high school, but her senior year, she took a step back from swimming to go out for the track and field team. With her coach’s help, she discovered that she had a natural knack for high jump. During that first season, she got in touch with the track and field coach at Tufts University, where she attended in the fall. Sika secured herself a walk-on position on the track and field team, and the rest is history. Sika enjoyed a successful career as a collegiate athlete, specializing in high jump and competing in other short track events. Her coach prompted her several times to go out for the 800-meter event, but there was no denying that Sika preferred shorter events.
Sika’s First Marathon
Though Sika hadn’t been inclined to do any endurance events in college, she had always wanted to do a marathon. Growing up outside of New York City and then attending college in Boston had given Sika a chance to spectate some of the world’s biggest marathons. So when she graduated college and was missing the structure and competition of track, she decided she would check running a marathon off her bucket list and sign up for the 2007 Atlantic City Marathon.
That first marathon was, in Sika’s words, “a miserable experience.” Sika went out too fast and by mile seventeen was puking and ready to call it quits. Try as she did to stop, her friend supporting her at the event didn’t pick up her phone, and Sika was somewhat situationally forced to keep going. Sika finished the race and broke four hours, a solid result for a first-time marathon. But for Sika, the experience was so scarring that she avoided marathons for a handful of years.
Slowly but surely, she progressed back into running and endurance sports. In 2013 she did her first triathlon, a local sprint triathlon. The following year she began doing Olympic distance triathlons. In 2015 she did her second marathon, which she won! Sika actually credits this marathon win to all the cycling and running training she started doing in 2013. From there, she did her first 70.3 distanced race in 2016, the IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman.
Mastering the Bike
In 2017, Sika decided she wanted to get serious about competing in triathlon. Sika was already a very strong runner, so becoming a more competitive triathlete meant she would need to become a better swimmer and a faster cyclist. When she first started, the disparity between her cycling and running fitness was so big that she could run a marathon faster than she could do the 56-mile bike ride. Addressing her cycling fitness was a natural first step.
Sika’s mentor, multisport entrepreneur, Dan Empfield, recommended she try doing her cycling training with TrainerRoad. So Sika signed up and took her first FTP test. Her first FTP was 140. Based on her running fitness alone, Dan couldn’t believe that this could possibly be her FTP. But after riding with her a bit and looking at her power, he agreed that her cycling really did have a lot of room for improvement.
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Dan helped her properly fit her bike, and with the use of TrainerRoad, Sika improved her cycling fitness exponentially. She broke the three hour time she had been trying for on the bike and increased her overall confidence when riding. Looking back at it, Sika feels like the addition of structured training, the use of a power meter, and a proper bike fit were what really helped her breakthrough on the cycling portion of her races.
Sika’s Cycling Training Tips
- Get a proper bike fit to make sure your bike fits you well.
- Use a structured based approach to training for progressive improvement and to maximize your available training time.
- Use a power meter for a more concrete and consistent understanding of your fitness.
- Practice consistency to maintain the momentum of your progression.
- Try joining some group rides when you first begin riding. Riding with faster and more experienced athletes can help you learn more on the bike skills and push your capabilities during workouts.
Working on the Swim
Sika still categorizes the swim as a weakness of hers, but it’s something she’s still made great strides forward in over the years. Something that has greatly helped Sika improve her swimming is swimming in a group instead of training alone. Sika will regularly join her local masters swim group, where many are predominantly swimmers and good ones at that. The group usually has a coach standing above the pool watching the swimmers and providing feedback on technique. The structured swim workouts, paired with this group environment, have helped Sika improve her swim gradually over the years.
Sika’s Swimming Tips
- Swim with a group or a training partner.
- Work with someone who can look at your technique and help you improve.
- Opt for structured swim workouts instead of unstructured freestyle distance.
- Practice open water swimming and group swims before your event.
Earning a Pro Card
With this extra attention to her swimming and cycling, Sika made huge improvements in her performance since her first half IRONMAN in 2016. In 2017, she qualified for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the IRONMAN 70.3 in North Carolina, she placed second in her age group and set a personal record of 4:49. Sika even merits some of her recent running PRs and the two marathons she’s won to the additional swimming and cycling training that she’s done.
With these accomplishments under her belt and her skills sharpened and established, Sika decided in 2019 she wanted to make another goal of hers a reality—earning her professional card in triathlon. In triathlon, earning a pro card is a very competitive endeavor. One of the only ways to earn this title is a top-three finish in the overall amateur category at an elite qualifying race.
This is an incredible challenge in and of itself, and if Sika earns her pro card, she will be the first African-American female in the sport to do so. In addition to being an elite athlete, Sika is also a vocal advocate for increasing diversity and inclusion in the sport of triathlon. This makes earning her pro card an even more important goal for her. When speaking on this subject in her article, Triathlon Needs More Diversity, featured in Bicycling Magazine, Sika shares that this lack of diversity in triathlon is what inspired her to pursue this challenge more seriously.
With this goal, Sika decided she would try to earn this card with a top-three finish at the Texas 70.3 IRONMAN in Galveston, Texas. This race is the second largest 70.3 attended event in the country.
A Near Career Ending Crash
In April of 2019, Sika flew to Galveston, Texas, to race the 70.3 distance event and earn her pro card. This particular race had an age group start, which put Sika starting at the very back of the race. Sika exited the water behind hundreds of athletes she would normally be riding in front of. When she got on the bike, the road was crowded with athletes, many of them first-time IRONMEN. She found herself constantly passing competitor after competitor, trying to clear through the dense group. In the midst of the race, an athlete near her moved to pass someone else, didn’t check their line, and swerved towards Sika. This person’s line choice forced Sika to swerve away defensively. She hit the median and crashed. All Sika remembers is waking up in the hospital hours later.
The fall’s impact knocked out Sika, and the visor of her aero helmet shattered in her face. Sika had a broken nose, lacerations to her face, and loose teeth. She couldn’t remember what had happened in the race or how she had gotten to the ER. Initially, Sika thought she had gotten into a car accident coming home from the race and that it wasn’t related to the race at all. When Sika heard exactly what had happened to her, she made up her mind. She was done with triathlons and cycling.
Recovery and Return
The days following Sika’s crash were not easy. It took thirty stitches to mend the lacerations in her face. An infection from her injuries meant that Sika needed to go onto a heavy dose of antibiotics, and the damage to her mouth required oral surgery. The crash and this initial stage of recovery left no doubt in Sika’s mind that she was done.
During those first few days amid trips to the doctor and time spent resting, two important things happened. First, her Dad asked her that if she knew that this crash was going to happen but that she’d still eventually earn her pro card, would she still do it? Thinking this over, there was no doubt in Sika’s mind that she would. Earning that pro card was important to her.
Sika also received an outpouring of support from friends and family. Amid many get well wishes and cards, there was a handful of hand drawn cards from children she hadn’t even met. In those cards, kids had made drawings of Sika and included words of encouragement. It was then that she truly realized that people were cheering her on from afar—kids were watching her journey. This was an affirmation that Sika’s athletic endeavors were going beyond mere race results. Her representation is important, and Sika’s role in triathlon is making an impact. Then and there, Sika decided she would get back on the bike and pursue her pro card again.
Five months after the crash, Sika returned to race IRONMAN 70.3 Augusta in Georgia. Sika raced a great race, with her best bike leg to date. Sika says that she usually doesn’t make up a ton of time on her competitors during the bike leg, but this time she did. Sika was the sixth fastest amateur woman that day, finishing just a few minutes away from earning her pro card. Sika missed it by a hair, but she was not discouraged. With more triathlons on her Calendar in 2021, her goal remains the same, and her determination is stronger then ever.
Follow Sika’s Journey
In conjunction with her athletic endeavors, Sika is also an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the triathlon community. I encourage anyone inspired by Sika’s story to learn more about why representation matters in triathlon and to read her article on why triathlon needs more diversity (linked below in Bicycling Magazine). She’s also still in pursuit of becoming the first African-American female to earn her pro card! If you’re interested in following Sika on the road to earning her pro card you should also give her a follow on Instagram where she posts regularly, and her blog where she regularly writes race reports.
Article, Instagram, & Blog
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