Written by Tamia Santiago
“Some days are going to be wonderful, some days are going to be awful, but every step taken is a step forward even if it does not feel that way now.” says María Paredes Fernández.
Paredes Fernández comes from a working-class family in southeast Delaware County. Her parents are South American immigrants, and their working-class reality did not leave room for the childhood Paredes Fernández may have wanted. Still, Fernández made sure to note that her parents were amazing and did what they could.
“I just thought growing up that because I was born into a working-class background, and a very traditional family, certain things were not a part of the reality of being working-class immigrants. For example, other items took priority and a girl playing sports was just not one of them,” says Paredes Fernández.Throughout her school days, Paredes Fernández battled between wants and traditional ideals. Poverty took prominence and forced Paredes Fernández’s childhood to sometimes sacrifice fun for work ethic. Although Paredes Fernández loves track, sports were not a priority in her household. Her parents pushed academic-based extracurriculars along with the pressure to be an “A” student. It was Paredes Fernández’s passion for running that left her clinging on to track and field as a youth. In fact, she would often look at runners and cyclists on Kelly Drive, a biking trail in Philadelphia, and wonder what it feels like to be that free. Unknowing to the fact that she would one day experience that freedom and empowerment.
Learning to Run Again
“Because I was steered so much into academics, I didn't really pursue track and field as seriously until college when I did Cross Country,” says Paredes Fernández.
As a student, Paredes Fernández took advantage of Penn State’s cross-country club team which had only just recently formed the year before. Here, she reunited with her passion and excelled. She was elected workout chair and won regionals under her leadership.
Paredes Fernández’s passion for running refueled as she began signing up for marathons. In fact, her biggest finish was at the 2015 Boston Marathon. Until this day, Paredes Fernández notes it as her greatest accomplishment.
Unfortunately, in 2018, Paredes Fernández suffered a broken foot injury while jogging on the Schuylkill trail. She tripped over a rock, but I was told to say she broke it while saving a baby from a burning building. Paredes Fernández was just six months out from her New York City Marathon when her doctor recommended only swimming and biking activities.
“And so, I said, ‘Well that is two thirds of a triathlon. I’m going to sign up for one.,” says Paredes Fernández.
Go Big or Go Home
Paredes Fernández’s first triathlon was a half Ironman distance, Eagleman 2019. The half Ironman distance consists of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run. Beginner triathletes usually enter a sprint distance triathlon, which is about a third of the distance. However, Paredes Fernández wanted the challenge and hasn't backed down from it since.
In September 2021, Paredes Fernández completed her first full Ironman. She finished with a 1-hour 33-minute swim, 6-hour 50-minute bike, and 4-hour 3-minute run. Overall, she had a time of 12:51:59, which was within her goal of under 13 hours. She trained extremely hard for this moment. More importantly, she envisioned it. Yes, Paredes Fernández set a goal for her time, but more than anything she just wanted to hear her name as she crossed the finish line.
“That’s what motivated me during training: picturing the moment I would be declared an Ironman by Tony Lugo,” says Paredes Fernández.
Paredes Fernández had set three alarms the night before but woke up by the grace of her own anxiety. She was anxious, but excited. She recalls it being a humid morning, and a scenic horizon. However, the news that she received the day before lingered in her mind.
“We were told wetsuits would be legal although the water temperature was high due to an abundance of jellyfish,” says Paredes Fernández.
During the Ironman Maryland swim, she caught tentacles everywhere. Moreover, she had to wear a turtleneck following the Ironman because the stings left scars on her neck. Nonetheless, Paredes Fernández finished her swim and headed to the bike. When the run came, Paredes Fernández was locked in. She took it one mile at a time and grabbed all the food she could get. In fact, the croissant she packed held up well despite their tendency to crumble.
As Paredes Fernández approached the finish, she became emotional. She saw all her loved ones standing and cheering her on. Then, the moment came. She triumphantly arrived at the finish line, and Tony Lugo called out, ”María Paredes Fernández, YOU are an IRONMAN!!!”
“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” says Paredes Fernández quoting Sharon Ulak, a fellow triathlete.Paredes Fernández also has various sprint and olympic distance triathlons under her belt and noted that she was able to finish her New York City Marathon in 2018. Despite her injury and with no excuses, Paredes Fernández walked and jogged her way across the finish line.
Finding a Community
Paredes Fernández decided to join T3 Philly Multisport once she gained some traction in marathons and triathlons. T3 Philly is a Philadelphia-based multisport club team. She embraces this community because it strives to make her a better athlete. Paredes Fernández joined shortly before the pandemic, yet the team did what they could to train together. T3 Philly would host virtual run and bike sessions. She grew to love this community, so it wasn't long before Paredes Fernández found herself nominated into a leadership position. Because T3 Philly welcomed her with such open arms, Paredes Fernández was unhesitant to become a team representative. Now, Paredes Fernández is Vice President of T3 Philly.
“There was a sense of community. We’re all in this together even if we’re not in the same race. It was really helpful to have that support,” says Paredes Fernández.
Overcoming Language Barriers“I remember being an 8-year-old on the phone debating utility bills for my parents,” Paredes Fernández said jokingly as she went on to state her motivation for her studies. Her passion for educational linguistic studies stems from her parent’s language barriers in the United States. While her parents spoke and understood English relatively well, it didn’t quite roll off the tongue as smoothly as their native language. Ultimately, leaving Paredes Fernández as their translator in these uncomfortable situations.
Currently, Paredes Fernández is pursuing her doctorate in educational linguistics to one day create environments where English learners feel they belong.
“My hypothesis is that a greater sense of community equates to more comfortability amongst English learners, which leads to better retention of the language,” says Paredes Fernández.
More importantly, Paredes Fernández feels that language helps build connections with people as does sports.
At first Maria was hesitant about brand ambassadorship.
“I didn’t want to be a walking advertisement,” she says.
She thought she would become a sellout if she partnered with a brand. However, her perception changed once she saw Varlo’s vision. “What attracted me with Varlo in particular was that I love Philadelphia and I love supporting locally, so to represent apparel from a growing, local company that is Black-owned is a badge of honor,” Fernández added. Varlo was a brand that she had to support and would love to see flourish.
Past, Present, and Future
Currently, Paredes Fernández is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania interested in how English language learners build a sense of community in online spaces. Despite her busy schedule, Paredes Fernández continues to seek ways to help motivate others. She aims to foster communities that make cycling more accessible – as Woman Bike PHL and T3 Philly did for her.
“The conscious mind can hold one thought at a time, so make it a positive one. When you’re stuck in the pain cage, try to smile, and focus on what motivates you. Always think of your why.”
— María Paredes Fernández
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