Dr. Tekemia Dorsey poses with her collection of triathlon medals.
When Dr. Tekemia Dorsey completed her first 70.3-mile “run, bike, run” duathlon in August 2013, she realized it “was not as scary as I had anticipated.”
So Dorsey decided to enter the world of triathlons. She’d already conquered women’s professional football as a scrappy running back/wide receiver and figured this was easier than getting smacked by people much bigger than she was. Dorsey simply had to change the first leg from a run to a swim.
There was just one complication. “At that point,” she said, “I didn’t know how to swim.”
Dorsey immersed herself in her new sport and finished her first full Ironman in September 2014. When her three school-age kids said, “We want to do what you did,” Dorsey taught them to swim, too.
But she had even bigger plans. That fall Dorsey founded the International Association of Black Triathletes, quickly turning the focus to urban youth. Dorsey estimates she has introduced triathlon to at least 10,000 children while organizing races and using the sport as a gateway to better health, more confidence and increased opportunities in academics and the workforce.
Last week Dorsey received the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s 2020 Rings of Gold Award. She was honored as an individual who has dedicated his or her life to helping young people achieve their highest athletic potential, while also assisting them in setting goals and establishing the mechanisms needed to achieve personal success on and off the field of play.
Dorsey, 47, from Middle River, Maryland, is the fourth African American woman to receive the individual award since it was established in 1996 and is the first recipient from her state.
Last year, Dorsey was elected to the USA Triathlon Board of Directors and is the first African American to serve. She is also a USA Triathlon Level I and Youth & Junior-certified coach, Youth & Junior Elite coach, USA Triathlon-certified race director, member of the USA Triathlon Race Director Committee and member of USA Triathlon’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Access Advisory Council.
Her path to becoming a leader in the sport of triathlon is a convoluted one.
A softball player in college, Dorsey redshirted her freshman year at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. She started running to lose the “freshman 15,” which was more of a “freshman 30.”
“As an African American, I’d seen my family go through diabetes, heart attack, stroke, aneurisms,” Dorsey said. “When I saw my first roll on my waist I knew I was in trouble. I started running for health reasons.”
She continued running while playing softball, but did not enter races until graduate school.
Dorsey ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, then did the New York City Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon.
She planned to run the inaugural Baltimore Marathon in 2001, but changed her mind when her mother passed away. “She was supposed to be there with me,” Dorsey said, “so instead of running the Baltimore Marathon, I went out for the Baltimore Burn.”
That was an unusual pivot. She played football for the professional women’s football team (which paid travel expenses, but no salary) for six years.
“I told my coach I wasn’t used to being hit,” said the 5-foot-2 Dorsey. “I was very tiny, but I was fast. You put the ball in my hand, and I’m going to run.”
She also got tackled, but that helped her learn about herself. “I had to toughen up,” Dorsey said.
She quit football when she became pregnant while finishing up her first doctoral degree. Dorsey continued running marathons, played recreational softball and started coaching.
When she decided to do her first triathlon, Dorsey ran on a treadmill and cycled on a trainer because she didn’t want to spend so much time away from home.
She also finally addressed her fear of the water, which she’d had since she was a child going to the community pool.
“You know how people play around in a pool and they dunk you under? Dorsey said. “That’s what happened to me.”
She had only one in-person lesson. Within five weeks, Dorsey could swim 66 laps, then she hired a coach to help her adjust to open water.
Dorsey finished her first Ironman with room to spare under the 17-hour time limit.
Dorsey’s kids were so impressed they wanted to be triathletes, too. She founded the IABT, the IABT Multisport Racing team, the IABT Junior Triathlon Club and the Sports Academy for Urban Youth.
With other organizations vying for adult triathletes, Dorsey said it was easy to look for ways to advance the sport from a youth perspective “because I had three of them in my house.”
Heaven will turn 16 on October 20, Halee is 14 and BJ is 12.
The club is a family project.