Max Fennell always knew he belonged, always knew he was going to be a professional athlete. At the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon early on Sunday, June 7, he clung one-handed to the railing of the San Francisco Belle sternwheeler boat, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the pros, then dived out into the water as everyone piled off the boat.
Muscles toned and mohawk bleached blond from countless hours spent training in swimming pools, Fennell blends in. Almost. He stands out, too. Just four of the 2,000 pro and amateur competitors in San Francisco were African-American, and when Fennell received his pro card in September last year, he became the first ever African-American professional triathlete.
“I don’t look in the mirror and tell myself I’m black,” Fennell says, “[but] I’m reminded that I’m black every single day.” In the couple of months leading up to the race in San Francisco he was pulled over twice by police at home in Philadelphia, apparently for no reason. “No ticket, no warning,” he says. And while the response from other professionals in the sport has been supportive, there are some triathletes back home who have been less welcoming.
“I’ve had people tell me that ‘you better watch your back,’” he says. “People send me private messages, from my [triathlon] community, telling me these things.”
Diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten, Fennell always found a release in playing sports. “With me,” he says, “I just needed to be active.” He burned up excess energy and could pay better attention in class. Medication never really worked, so he stopped taking it entirely after his freshman year of college.
For Fennell, who grew up in a single-parent family, coaches became the father figures in his life. His mother, Zandra Maffett, worked long hours as an executive at the pharmaceutical company McNeil Consumer Products to scrape enough money to send him and his two older brothers to private school. Even though they mixed with more privileged kids at school, “we had those times where you just had water for cereal,” Fennell says.
He played soccer in elementary and middle school, and was a three-sport athlete at his high school, Delaware County Christian School. After two years at Delaware Valley College, Fennell quit to try out for his local MLS team, the Philadelphia Union. Missing the cut, he decided to attend trials for the Union’s minor league affiliate, the Reading Rage, but he sprained his MCL playing a pickup game a couple of weeks before.
At the coffee shop where Fennell worked, a regular named Brian Sullivan asked him what he would do next. “I heard about this Ironman thing,” Fennell said. “Maybe I’ll do an Ironman.” Cycling would strengthen his knees; get him back to playing soccer.
Sullivan lent him an old bike for the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon in June 2011. Fennell finished eighth out of 62 racers in his 20–24 age group. He raced six more triathlons that year, winning his age group twice and placing second in two more. His knee was better, but he decided to stick with triathlon.
For the next three years he scraped by, working in a bike shop and doing odd jobs while living at home with his mother in King of Prussia, Penn. He trained in a local rec pool and out on the hills of Valley Forge National Park. And he gained more experience with each race.
In 2014, as he chased down the possibility of turning professional, he won two races overall, the Independence Triathlon in Quakertown, Penn., in June 2014, and the Tri the Wildwoods Triathlon in North Wildwood, N.J., last August. Starting with Elite Bicycles he began signing up sponsors, including hydration brand Nathan Sports and athletic clothing company Under Armour. Then in September 2014 he got his pro card just before the Ironman 70.3 in Miami.
In February he signed up with Paulo Sousa, a dedicated triathlon coach based in San Diego who counts Heather Wurtele, a four-time Ironman champion, among his clientele. Sousa told Fennell he needed to come to California, and when he got there, Sousa had him training in the pool six days a week. Fennell could swim, but before signing up for his first triathlon he’d never swum competitively. “You need to do your homework,” Sousa said, and effectively banned him from racing again until May.
Fennell, 27, set himself goals for 2015: win three pro triathlons and place top five in another five races, get a bike sponsor, and make the starting line for the Rio 2016 qualification event. Bigger life goals are to continue working with the non-profit organization Children and Adults with ADHD, and to broaden the appeal of triathlon. “I see all these kids in urban areas in the city doing wheelies, and they’re on BMX bikes,” Fennell says. “Man, if I could get you on a road bike you would really see what some real speed’s like.”
At Escape from Alcatraz he wanted to finish in the top 10. But he finished 11th in the pro division, and 37th overall. His time of 2:22:58 was 16 minutes and 12 seconds behind sixth place, the first position with a cash prize.
He was overtaken by countless more-experienced swimmers on the open-water journey from Alcatraz to the beach beside the St. Francis Yacht Club. Then he lost time on his aluminum road bike to racers on lighter, composite time-trial bikes. His right hamstring cramped on the bike ride, and he had abdominal cramps on the run. He also picked up a one-minute penalty for drifting off the running course from the soft sand to the hard sand.
Fennell was disheartened, but positive. “You’re not going to appreciate the win if you’ve never experienced a significant loss,” he said. “At least I showed up and I represented. At least I’m here, and at least I’m standing on the starting line.”
At the finish he took the time to chat to the veteran racers, people he looks up to, and who he says have always been there to offer him advice. One of those was Leanda Cave, a former Ironman world champion, whom Fennell met at his first pro race, in Miami last October.
“To be successful in anything you just got to keep pushing and keep taking the setbacks,” Cave says.
“It’s a tough sport to break into as a professional,” says Cam Dye, who has won Fennell’s home Philadelphia race three times in a row and shares Nathan Sports sponsorship with him. “There’s a lot of rough stuff that goes on when you first start out: trying to pay the bills, and come up with sponsors, and get to races.”
Neither Cave nor Dye has ever personally seen any racial discrimination in their sport, but “unfortunately there’s bad people everywhere,” Dye says. “Triathlon is the same, similar demographic to the world as a whole. You’ve got mostly good people and you’ve got a few bad apples.”
After Escape from Alcatraz, Fennell’s next race was the Philadelphia Triathlon in late June, where he competed side-by-side with the people who had given him heat for his ethnicity. He came in 11th, but his goal there was simple: “I could care less about winning the race. I just want to beat them.”
He followed up Philly with a 7th in the New York City Triathlon in July and 28th in Chicago at the end of August. Next up is Alcatraz’s sister race in China, the Beijing International Triathlon on Sept. 20.
But the real focus this year is finding a way that he can concentrate on training rather than worrying about each paycheck. And even though he wants to be seen first and foremost as a professional athlete, he knows that being black is part of his brand, too. “Hey Barry,” he said to Barry Bonds, the former Giants slugger who was at the finish line in San Francisco, “I need to let you know I’m the only black pro in the sport. I could use some help.”
“Shoot me an email,” Bonds replied.