Sika Henry swam competitively all four years of high school before taking up high jumping as a senior. As a college freshman, she walked on to Tufts’s track team and graduated as an all-American.
Years later, seeking a new competitive outlet, Henry entered her first triathlon and immediately got hooked. It didn’t matter that she finished close to last; she loved the camaraderie and was determined, at 29, to see how quickly she could improve.
Today, at 34, Henry is still pushing herself. Her current goal: become the first female African American triathlete to earn her pro card, conferring professional status in a sport that traditionally has attracted few women and athletes of color.
Henry’s journey makes her an ideal speaker for Tuesday’s announcement that Hampton University is becoming the first historically black institution to add women’s triathlon as a varsity sport, aided by a $225,000 grant from USA Triathlon.
“I wish at that age that I had the opportunity, as expensive as this sport is,” said Henry, an analyst who lives in Newport News, Va. “The funding that will go toward the program is going to give minority athletes an open door to this sport. I think it will influence the next generation of athletes.”
That’s the hope of USA Triathlon, which has made diversifying its participants a priority.
Henry knows the statistics well, having studied the sport’s participation rates after being struck by how few minorities competed alongside her in recent years. That led her to statistics on the disproportionate percentage of African Americans who cannot swim and the disproportionate drowning rates among African American children, which have turned her into an advocate for her sport.
Said Henry: “Seeing other athletes you can identify with can be really powerful.”
According to USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris, African Americans account for roughly 5 percent of triathlon participants, compared to about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
“We wanted to get out in front of this and do something proactive,” Harris said of the initiative with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which started with the promise of a $225,000 grant to the first HBCU that committed to adding triathlon as a varsity sport for women.
Hampton was eager to lead the way. The Hampton, Va., university is also the only Division I HBCU to sponsor lacrosse and sailing teams.
According to William R. Harvey, Hampton’s longtime president, the university is fulfilling one of the core missions articulated by its founder in 1868: to develop students’ character, as well as their preparedness for the workplace.
“It is just terrific for us to become the first HBCU to sponsor triathlon,” Harvey said in a telephone interview. “Once again, just like in sailing and lacrosse, we are pioneering something in sports and specifically for women. This is not the first time that Hampton has led, and others will follow.”
The USA Triathlon grant, which will be announced during an on-campus event Tuesday, will be distributed over a five-year period and be used to hire a coach and support travel, scholarships and expenses.
The initiative by USA Triathlon dovetails with its larger goal of establishing varsity women’s teams in 40 colleges and universities across the country.
That’s the minimum threshold, under NCAA rules, for a so-called “emerging sport for women” to earn full-fledged NCAA championship status. The NCAA designated triathlon an “emerging sport for women” in 2014, setting in motion a 10-year timetable for establishing the 40 teams. To that end, USA Triathlon’s board in 2014 approved $2.6 million for grants to encourage schools to add teams. In April, the board added another $900,000 to its grant pool.
With Hampton’s addition, 26 schools across Divisions I, II and III will field women’s triathlon teams, including Mideast Region participants Belmont Abbey and Queens in North Carolina; East Tennessee State; Davis & Elkins in West Virginia; and Transylvania in Lexington, Ky.
The initiative goes beyond simply adding teams. Said Harris: “It’s about creating a system, from the grass roots up, that will allow African American women to experience our sports earlier in life and to create a pipeline for Hampton and other HBCUs.”
That grassroots system will include creating a “Talent ID camp” for high school students who might become future Hampton athletes. It also will create an indoor triathlon series in which the swim portion is contested in a pool rather than open water; the bike on a stationary bike and the run on a treadmill.
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