Meet The First African-American Pro Triathlete

Meet Max Fennell, who is the first African-American pro triathlete.

Photo: Ian Swain II

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Meet Max Fennell, who is the first African-American pro triathlete.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Max has officially received his pro card this September, making him the first professional African American triathlete.

If all goes to plan, Max Fennell will receive his pro card by the end of the 2014 triathlon season. It would be a first for the sport in one regard: “I did research to see if there were any other pro African-American triathletes, and I realized there weren’t,” Fennell says. “I’ve been racing in the open elite category to become a professional triathlete, which would make me the first African-American pro.”

Fennell, who turned 27 in October, grew up just outside Philadelphia and planned on becoming a professional soccer player after his first two years in college. Due to knee ligament damage sustained two weeks before tryouts, he was forced to give up on his soccer dreams. While working at a Philadelphia coffee shop in 2011, a customer lent Fennell his old triathlon bike and coached him through his first season.

Starting with TriRock Philadelphia, Fennell competed in six races in 2011 and won his age group in his last race. “After I placed well, I just wanted to see where I could take it from there,” he says.

Fennell is now entering his fourth season and already has an impressive résumé. He has earned multiple podiums, raced in the USA Sprint National Championships and qualified for the 2013 Age Group Sprint World Championship with Team USA. He temporarily relocated to Florida to compete in more pro-qualifying races and landed a sponsorship with Nathan Sports. Now his goal, besides earning his pro card, is to focus on ITU racing to earn a spot on Team USA and compete in Rio in 2016.

“Max represents our own aspirations as athletes and as a company—that is, simply to go for it,” says Brent Hollowell, vice president of marketing for Nathan. “To put it all out there, push your personal potential and see what can happen, Max is relentless in his pursuit of his goals, and we admire that quality.”

According to USA Triathlon, less than 0.5 percent of people who participate in triathlons are African-American. Fennell hopes to inspire African-American youth who are only exposed to mainstream sports.

“Society pushes on us that as an African-American male, you’re only going to be successful if you are a basketball or football player or some type of musical artist,” Fennell says. “When you don’t have someone that looks like you, you’re not going to be drawn to it.”

Fennell has been fine-tuning his powerful athleticism throughout the past few years through high-intensity training, but triathlon has improved his life in another important way. Diagnosed with ADHD, Fennell says the sport has helped him approach life in a more structured manner.

“Max shares his time to help motivate and inspire kids who might also be struggling with ADHD,” Hollowell says. “The rigors of triathlon training have given Max real insights in to the power of discipline and focus, and he has generously shared that message to help inspire others.”

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