A former college soccer player, Max Fennell’s dream of making it to the pros was derailed when he suffered a major knee injury just weeks before he was set to try out for his local minor league soccer team in Philadelphia. Not sure where to turn, a friend gave him an old bike and introduced him to triathlon.
Fennell would go on to become the first African-American professional athlete in the sport.
His notoriety in triathlon helped land him a spot on CBS’ new game show, "Million Dollar Mile," which premiered in late March. NBA superstar LeBron James is the executive producer and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow hosts as contestants get a head start and try to outrun world-class athletes, like Fennell, on an obstacle course — with a chance to win anywhere from $10,000 to $1 million in prize money.
We caught up with Fennell recently to see how he enjoyed his experience on television, how triathletes stack up against some of the best athletes in the world, what he’s done to help inspire African-American youth through multisport and what advice he has for people who are new to triathlon.
USA Triathlon: What was going through your mind when you had your injury and realized your soccer career was over?
Max Fennell: I was worried I was going to get depressed. I was kind of at a loss. Triathlon gave me something to stay focused for. It allowed me to get healthy and strengthen my knee again. When I did that, it transferred into my outlet. That’s how I got hooked. I got hooked at the end of the year. I finished seventh in my age group in the sprint. So, I wanted to do another one. I did all these races. At the end of the year, I won my age group. That’s when I decided I wanted to stick with it.
USAT: What was your first impression of triathlon?
Max: I did my entire swim breast stroke. I remember just being happy that I finished the race. I didn’t even know there were results at the end of the race until my friend called me. He was like “How’d you do?” And, I was like, “I finished the race.”
And, he was like, “Yeah ... but how did you do?” Once I found out that people got ranked and you could win the entire race, that really excited me.
USAT: What has triathlon meant to you in your life?
Max: Triathlon has been kind of a gateway for me —an opportunity generator, if you will. It’s been a cool way for me to express myself. It’s allowed me to find all these different outlets to channel my creativity and allow me to grow as a person, as well as find other business opportunities. Triathlon for me has become an interesting type of cultural shift for me. It’s been a community and a huge part of my identity.
USAT: What does it mean to you to be the first African American professional triathlete?
Max: It means that I have an opportunity to help grow the sport for those who wouldn’t necessarily know about these opportunities to be a professional. Athletes that look like myself might follow a track and field route. Yet, competing as a professional triathlete is an exciting lifestyle. Every time I race, I’m going to a beach destination.
If you want to create change, one way you can do that is by representing and letting people know about these opportunities. You can create those opportunities yourself through your hard work in the sport.
USAT: What will it take to increase diversity in our sport?
Max: It’s going to take hands-on work from everyone. The biggest thing that’s the most promising is, you know, I turned pro in 2014, and race directors have always provided opportunities for me. They always try to be there for that conversation. Same with USA Triathlon. I’ve always had people reach out to me and ask, "What do we need to do (to help increase diversity)?"
It’s very comforting that we’ve been having this dialogue since 2014. If we can get the sponsors involved, and race directors and USA Triathlon, putting those images (of African-American triathletes) out and increasing our representation, I think that’s definitely going to help increase those numbers.
USAT: What’s been your proudest accomplishment as an athlete?
Max: My proudest accomplishment was going to Chicago last year and working with Tri-Masters, (a group that helps urban kids and introduces them to triathlon), running a clinic and then winning the Chicago Tri Super Sprint. I got to spend some time with the kids. That was the first time I was having a young black kid tell me "I want to be a professional triathlete."
Then, watching them (the kids) race in the morning and then having them watch me race, and see me winning the race was ... you just couldn’t plan it better than that.
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Racing back to back this weekend and happy to work for the overall win today. It was inspiring to watch the kids race before hand and see so many of them crush it! I absolutely love the super sprint distance! Now to rest up and get ready for tomorrow! #chitri @lifetimetri @rolobikes @maurten_official @thirtys7ven @befitconsultants
USAT: What is it like, knowing you’re an inspiration for young kids?
Max: It’s motivating. It keeps me inspired. Triathlon is a very hard sport. I understand that me competing in the sport is going to lead to their personal development, if they realize it or not. It just keeps me engaged in the sport, knowing that me showing up to a race and giving it my all could potentially have life-changing effects on some of these kids.
That’s where the benefit truly is — if some kid is saying, “Hey, I got into the sport of triathlon, and I went off to college and joined the collegiate team.” Whether he does or doesn’t become pro, there are just certain kids in certain areas where the sport of triathlon is literally going to be their gateway that sends them down a very successful and productive path.
USAT: What advice would you have for a newbie triathlete?
Max: I would say, be open to trying something new and having zero expectations. Find a way to enjoy the experience as much as possible and have as much fun as possible. Let that be your first experience. After that, everything else will fall into place.
USAT: You’ve been a defender on CBS’ new competition game show, "Million Dollar Mile." What has that experience been like?
Max: It was an absolutely amazing experience. I only had a month to get ready once I found out I was being cast as a defender. I spent three years literally having a coach work with me to help me get my upper body as small as possible. And then, we had a month to put on 10 pounds of muscle. I was very fortunate to have LeBron James’ team reach out to me and bring me on board. It’s an absolute honor when he’s the executive producer and he’s the one telling these guys, “Hey, I want this to be our guy.” And then, it was just huge as a professional triathlete being able to represent.
Everyone else there was a professional obstacle course racer. I was the only one there representing as a professional triathlete, which was very good to see how triathlon would transfer over to obstacle course racing or other types of sport. Surprisingly enough, a lot of being a professional triathlete transferred over to Million Dollar Mile.
But, it was also a life changing experience. I did things I’ve never done before.
USAT: On the show, you’re a defender — tasked with chasing down a contestant and preventing them from winning the $1 million prize. What’s that like? Do you ever feel bad being the ‘bad guy’?
Max: (Laughs) I know. I didn’t channel it as ‘being the bad guy.’ It was constantly being seen as a race where someone had a 2-minute head start. You go into it knowing that you might potentially ruin some people’s dreams, but it’s also a competition. You are being casted as someone that is going to race all out every single time.
That’s the exciting thing. What’s going to happen? Here’s a 2-minute head start, run as fast as you can and see if you can win $1 million. That puts a lot of pressure on you, because you want to be known as being a world-class athlete. Or, is this person going to beat you? There’s a lot of nerves. You’re running as hard as you can because all you’re thinking about is that this person has a 2-minute head start. To us, a 2-minute head start is like night and day. It seems like the person has a full hour on you. You have to book it as soon as they tell you to go to that first obstacle. You’re running as hard as you can until you catch this person.
USAT: What’s been the best part about being on a TV show?
Max: It was a very proud moment for me. I don’t feel like it’s just me up there. I think a lot of people are celebrating in that success, because so many people have seen where I’ve come in the sport of triathlon.
There were so many people there when I was just showing up (to triathlon) with mismatched kits and unfitted helmets and sleeping on someone’s couch before a race. That’s the beauty of triathlon, and now being on "Million Dollar Mile," because a lot of people really know the amount of work that was put in and have been on this journey. A lot of people feel connected and know, “Wow, we’ve seen this guy in the sport of triathlon for seven, eight years. And now, we get to celebrate with him and watch him on TV.
USAT: What was your favorite moment from the show?
Max: The first episode I was in. It included the worst solo where I had to swim across a shipping container and then scale a 50-foot rock wall. I had a month to get ready to have some sort of rock climbing experience.
But, what the readers will love is the fact that only triathletes have the ability to go all out, and then do some type of aquatic event under complete lactic acid and duress and it not affect them. I was able to run a 5:30 mile and then dive in the water, swim across and then scale a wall faster than someone just because how many times have you been in the ‘washing machine’ and you’re swimming with other pros and you’re trying to keep up with other people? How many times have you run down the beach and then you have to come over into the water and the surf is all crazy, and then you come out of the surf and you’re going to the bike/run? All that stuff added up to where, for the show, I was able to do all this stuff and be completely comfortable. It doesn’t even phase you, which was pretty amazing.
USAT: Being on a show with so many world-class athletes, how do you think a pro triathlete stacks up in terms of fitness?
Max: This was more of the obstacle course world. But, being a pro triathlete, what we have is that, we are under pressure anywhere from less than an hour to 8-10 hours. Even if it’s an IRONMAN, you’re under pressure for 10 hours either trying to chase someone or someone is chasing you. It’s the ability to step up to a starting line and know that whatever is about to be thrown at you, you’ll be ready. Triathlon prepares you for anything, where you have a plan, but you just expect that plan to be thrown out the window. We have a very high ability to adapt very quickly under pressure and keep moving forward.
USAT: What was it like meeting Tim Tebow? Did you get a chance to meet LeBron James too?
Max: We didn’t get to meet LeBron because that was during his season. But, we did get to meet Tim Tebow. While the runner is going, you don’t see it (on the show), but we’re just talking to Tebow. This guy is as genuine as they come. He’s a straight up good dude. You’re just standing there getting ready to race someone, and you’ve got a two-minute countdown and he’s just like, "What’s up man? How’s it going? You ready to go get this guy?"
USAT: In addition to triathlon and television shows, you’re also an entrepreneur. Tell us about some of your business adventures.
Max: I have a coffee company that just opened up a coffee bar (Fenn Coffee) in downtown Menlo park. We have these very cool espresso shots that are great for endurance athletes. I’ve been thankful to have other professional triathletes come on board to come on board as partnering athletes to support the brand. We do co-branding with some other triathletes like Lauren Brandon, Lesley Smith and Matt Russell that have really helped a lot.
I started my triathlon career working part time in a coffee shop and training all the time. I’ve been in coffee since I was in my early 20s. It was natural to make that segue into starting my own company. I had a friend of mine convince me to start my own.
I’m also working with a few triathlon clubs. We’re also in the process of working on a few other programs down the road.
USAT: So, with everything going on, what does a typical day look like for you?
Max: Thankfully, I have an understanding coach. I work all day at the coffee shop, go train at noon, come back to the Coffee shop and then go train again.
USAT: What is one athletic goal, triathlon-specific or unrelated, that you want to still accomplish in your life?
Max: I still want to go to Kona. I want to switch to long course eventually. I’ll let that happen naturally when my body is ready and needs something more. I want to run some marathons. I plan to be in the sport until my 40s. My biggest priority is training to win a pro race, pushing myself and finding out what I’m really made of. That would just cap off everything I’ve set out to do. It was my goal to get a pro card. It was a goal of mine to race on the circuit. It would be fulfilling the dream of being a professional athlete. It’s one thing to be a professional athlete. It’s another thing to be a professional athlete with some wins under your belt.