With nine marathons and three Ironman tris behind her, María Paredes Fernández is becoming a preeminent triathlete in Philadelphia. And that’s not even her day job.

As a young girl, María Paredes Fernández looked on longingly from the backseat of her parents’ 1990 Mazda MPV van as they drove past runners and cyclists cruising down the School River Trail (SRT) along Kelly Drive on the way to and from Philadelphia. She wished she could do what they were doing, and although she was grateful for the opportunities her South American immigrant parents afforded her and her younger brother, Michael, athletic pursuits were not on the menu. 

Her mom and dad, having fled their homelands of El Niño–ravaged Ecuador and dictator-gripped Argentina in the early 1980s to find opportunities in the United States, thought of sports as a bit of a distraction from their most deeply held ideals for raising their children. “For them, their idea of the American dream was what we could achieve through academics, so there was a big push in our household for that,” says Paredes Fernández. “The flip side was that there wasn’t much room for anything else. I’d stare at those people on their bikes or running and just wonder what it would be like and dream of one day being able to do that.”

Today, it’s other kids riding along Kelly Drive who cast longing glances at 39-year-old Paredes Fernández as she trains for her next event. 

With goals of competing internationally or winning a spot at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Paredes Fernández’s athletic aspirations continue to soar. But she while pushes the limits in her training, doing what she loves is still her driving force. “Being able to keep that joy for the sport and to know it’s something I get to do and that I choose to do is so important—when I’m training and competing, it feels like the American dream,” she says.

There’s my academic side. There’s also an athletic side. I love meeting people who help me get in touch with all the dimensions of myself.

"I'm doing it for us..."

One of the most inspirational people in Maria Paredes Fernández’s life was her late grandmother (abuelita), Mariana Fernández de Zambrano. In a recent article in Runner’s World, Fernández attributed her grit and determination to her abuelita. Although she mostly lived in Ecuador throughout Fernández’s childhood, the two were very close. “There isn’t anybody I can think of who was like my grandmother,” she recalls. “I think if she were our age, living in our time now, she would totally be running. 

“My grandma saw the bigger picture. She was just very strong-willed, and she would probably be considered a feminist today.”

When her training gets especially grueling or when she encounters a tough moment in a race, she channels her abuela. 

After the Runner’s World article posted online, Fernández wrote this tribute on Instagram: “Siga, siga, siga.’ I can’t read that without hearing her voice. Mariana Fernández de Zambrano was my abuelita, and she continues to be a keystone in my life even after her passing 8 years ago. In pivotal moments, I think about these words as if she were there, cheering me on and giving me the strength to keep going. The bond we shared is one of my most precious treasures and to have had the opportunity to share this gem, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month, has been an absolute privilege.”

Dual Discoveries

Growing up in southeast Delaware County, PA, Paredes Fernández was a straight-A student, taking on the singular focus of academics that was so important to her parents. She also carried the responsibility of being the eldest child and the first native English speaker in the family. “My parents always felt like their English was not good enough. They just didn’t feel that they were understood. So I was always kind of dragged along, to go to doctor’s appointments or to make phone calls when certain bills were unpaid, for example,” recalls Paredes Fernández. “So, in that sense, I kind of I grew up quickly, and I realized that most of my peers didn’t have those kinds of expectations placed on them. All I wanted to do was assimilate and be like everybody else—I absolutely hated speaking in Spanish.”

Her hard work paid off, and she received a partial academic scholarship to Penn State University, and she enrolled as an art major. By sophomore year, she’d switched to kinesiology. But during a semester studying abroad in Spain, Paredes Fernández began to find her way. “It was a healing experience for me, and I was able to get a better sense of appreciation for everything that led me up to that point,” she says. “I really began to find myself and start to appreciate how language had played such a big role in my life.” 

That realization ultimately led her to find her calling: teaching language.

But the college experience also helped her realize another dream—she joined the newly formed cross-country club team at Penn State and discovered the extent of her passion (and aptitude) for running. Although her collegiate running career was a pastime instead of a competitive pursuit, it paved the way for her future athletic endeavors while still giving her the time to focus on her career.

Seizing the Moment

As she approached the end of her senior year and the culmination of her work (and a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Linguistics & International Relations), she felt a familiar sense of uncertainty. She knew she wanted a language-based career, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what that would be. Then that summer, a serendipitous moment led to a breakthrough. “I was working at a sandwich shop when the chair of the Spanish department came up and asked me about my plans. She said, ‘We’re looking for people to teach and run lectures. Based on how you were in class, I think you would be a great addition to our department,’” Paredes Fernández says. “She was essentially offering me a job. I remember my jaw dropping, I was making her sandwich, and I dropped the knife.”

Paredes Fernández began teaching Spanish that next semester, and she never looked back. “That experience made me feel like the profession found me,” she says. She taught language at Penn State from 2006 through 2009 before leaving for the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language (TESOL). While she was going for her master’s a friend told her about an opening in the department of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania School of Art & Sciences. With a belly full of determination (and a touch of self-doubt), Paredes Fernández went for it and won the job. She started at Penn as a lecturer in 2011. 

In the summers, she served as an advisor and instructor in the Penn Study Abroad Program, teaching in places like Madrid and Alicante, Spain, as well as well as Buenos Aires, Argentina. “I went through a lot of emotions during that period while working in the Spanish department. Professionally, that’s where I really found myself,” Paredes Fernández explains. “I was going to conferences and presenting and really connecting with the students. It was important to me to help them create a sense of community.”

She worked in the Spanish department for the next 6 years, which culminated in her being named the 2016 Teacher of the Year at the university level by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. “Learning Spanish helps students to examine their own assumptions about language and culture,” Paredes Fernández told Penn Today. “It allows students to experience the world more broadly and express themselves outside the confines of their own culture.” 

Wanting to stretch her skill set and take her TESOL degree out for a drive, Paredes Fernández switched gears, becoming a language specialist at Penn in the English Language Programs (and a doctoral candidate in Educational Linguistics at the Penn Graduate School of Education). “I really connect with the students, particularly the students who are trying to balance athletics and academics,” she says.

Go Time

While she is deeply dedicated to her career and her own continuing education, Paredes Fernández continues to balance her profession and her passion for athletics. Since college, she continued distance running and training for marathons. But in 2018, she broke her foot after tripping over a rock during a training run. As she waited for her foot to heal, she started swimming and riding the stationary bike to maintain her fitness. That’s when her passion for triathlons came to life. While she continued to run marathons, she started training for tris with vigor, and in September 2021, Paredes Fernández completed her first full Ironman, a grueling event that she completed with a time of 12:51:59, which was within her goal of under 13 hours.

Her athletic résumé now includes nine marathons, including the Boston and New York City Marathons three Ironman triathlons including Lake Placid, and races throughout the Philadelphia region. She is a pivotal part of the running and triathlon community in Philadelphia; she is the vice president of T3 Philly, a triathlon-focused multisport club; and she runs with South Philly Striders, swims with Philly Fins, and cycles with Philly Devo.

As she closes in on 40 years old, Paredes Fernández feels the urgency to compete at the highest level she can achieve. “Right now, I’m pushing as much as I can because I hear people talk of this plateau that sometimes happens,” Paredes Fernández says. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.” 

While she feels alive during her training and still feels the joy of running, cycling, and swimming, the community aspect is also a huge draw for Paredes Fernández. Feeling connected to the multisport world in Philadelphia and beyond has been a deeply rooting and meaningful experience for her. And, somewhat surprisingly, she and her mom have also found some common ground in the athletic world. “My mom walks 5Ks, and we have been able to kind of bond over that. It’s not something she would have ever done in the past,” she says. “For her to be able to do that now and for us to talk about the 5Ks together is just this huge thing that makes everything feel like it’s come full circle.”  

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