From Fleet Feet to Michigan tennis: The Fenty family and a culture of exercise

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 6:47pm

Andrew Fenty competing for the Wolverines.

Andrew Fenty competing for the Wolverines. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

Phil Fenty runs. He bikes. He swims. Fenty runs ultramarathons — 100-mile races that can take nearly 24 hours to compete.

“What’s even more crazy is that he did them twice,” said Andrew Fenty, his grandson. “And to qualify for that event you have to run numerous 50 mile events.”

Phil Fenty runs Ironman races, even the Ironman World Championship —  the most grueling of triathlon competitions. He races in all these competitions as a septuagenarian.

“He does everything,” Andrew said.

Adrian Fenty, Phil’s son and Andrew’s father, runs every morning often at 5 a.m.

Shawn Fenty, Adrian’s brother and Phil’s son owns Fleet Feet in Washington D.C., arguably the nation’s premier running store. He outfits hundreds of runners who travel to his store in search of the ideal fit for a long run, much like the ultramarathons Phil competes in.

And Andrew?

Andrew plays tennis. The freshman anchors the Michigan men’s tennis team, finishing with 22 singles and 18 doubles wins — both the highest totals on the Wolverines this season.

Fenty and his twin brother Matthew had a lot of energy as young children. Adrian, the boys’ father and the former mayor of Washington D.C., decided to introduce sports as a way to channel this enthusiasm into something constructive. Then, from a friend who went to high school with Adrian and lived nearby, Adrian found tennis and signed the boys up. When they were three or four years old, he took his children to a tennis academy owned by his friend.

“He would let them hit even when they weren’t ready for it,” Adrian said via a phone interview. “So by the time they were four, they actually could hit pretty well and do practices.

“They played a lot of other sports for a while, but tennis was always the sport and by the time they were 12, it was the only sport.”

And as Andrew would eventually learn, tennis became his sport. Just like track for his father, marathoning for his grandfather and cycling for his uncle.

From left to right, Adrian, Andrew, Aerin, Jeanette, Matthew and Phil.

From left to right, Adrian, Andrew, Aerin, Jeanette, Matthew and Phil. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Adrian Fenty

The passion for athletics and fitness began with Phil, when he was in his thirties and wanted to keep up with his sons and lose weight, according to Adrian. So, Phil decided to take up running. It was inexpensive and required minimal equipment, just a pair of running shoes. But as he continued to pursue it, running became more than just a means to lose weight. Running slowly became Phil’s passion, a method of solace.

“I just enjoyed running,” Phil said. “It was something that appealed to me and came naturally to me. I had an affinity to it. It quieted my mind. When you’re running you’re just with yourself, a meditative type of adventure.”

Though it certainly provided benefits for his health, Phil also greatly appreciated the familial attitude that came from running. It was a sport that Phil, his wife and two sons could do together and separately. And, Phil believes that it led Shawn to pursue cycling and Adrian to pursue soccer.

But rather than just maintain this affinity as a casual hobby, or a way to keep his family connected, Phil turned his passion into a business.

Phil had experience working in retail and had received significant experience as an employee for Sears Roebuck. Opening his own store was something he envisioned doing, and combining his passion for exercise with his retail experience made it an easy decision.

Then, he met the founder of Fleet Feet.

“She lived in California, and had 18 stores in California,” Phil remembers. “Coincidentally, at the same time she was interested in opening stores outside of California, and Washington D.C. was a good spot because we had a great base of runners and things going on in D.C. And so she granted my wife (Jeannette) and I a franchise, and we opened it and so my dream came true and it worked out very well.”

Phil is being modest.

35 years later, Fleet Feet is the premier running shop in the Washington D.C. area and remains a family business. What began as a store owned by Phil and his wife is now currently managed by Phil’s son, Shawn with many members of the family working there.

It began as a store focused on triathletes but now, it focuses on a specific niche — intense runners.

When Andrew was asked about his experiences with Fleet Feet, he smiled and remembers working at a store with his cousins and uncles. As a young child, he would be with the employees at a nearby park, spending time with them on their breaks.

“I remember as a young kid, my father would just leave me (at the store),” Andrew said. “Recently, I worked there as a salesman, which was weird, because I grew up there my whole life.

“It’s a rite of passage, everyone goes through there.”

Added Phil: “Andrew and his brother Matthew, they’re twins, they spent days in the store when they were still in baby carriers. They’ve been at the store since they were born, as have all the children. It’s been a great family environment.”

Working at Fleet Feet is seemingly only one of many “rites of passage” for the Fenty family. Another is finding your sport.

But, it was up to each member of the family to find their own athletic niche. Phil never sought to steer his children or his grandchildren to any specific sport.

“Shawn and (Adrian)  are both athletes in their own disciplines,” Phil Fenty said. “It was never pressure to be a runner, (it was) to find the sport that works for you and put in a good effort.

“Tennis was their thing. I didn’t try to influence anybody in the family to do what I did. They found the sports that worked for them.”

Phil, though, still recognizes the benefits that running provided for Andrew at a young age. He believes that endurance is crucial to success in tennis and that those with running backgrounds have a significant advantage.  

Andrew certainly recognizes the effect that such training provided. About five years ago on Christmas, Andrew began doing a track workout with his father. Even in that first workout, Andrew kept pace with a father who avidly runs triathlons and marathons, Adrian noticed his son’s speed and potential.

By the next year, Adrian acknowledges that his son had bested him. And for Andrew, these workouts and lessons from his father and grandfather have paid dividends on the court. It has given him perspective on his up-and-coming tennis career.

“(My grandfather) still works out four hours a day,” Andrew said. “He goes to the gym as much as me. He doesn’t stop. It’s motivation, but it’s just amazing to see that, he’s kinda like my father in a way, never stopping. I don’t think he knows what it feels like to not work out.

“It means the world, to have the grandfather like that, pushing me in a way.”

Andrew’s father too, provided a path for his son to succeed.

Andrew Fenty playing tennis.

Andrew Fenty playing tennis. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Adrian Fenty had a similar journey to intense distance running as Phil. After graduating from Oberlin and competing on the track team for two years, Adrian took a break from the sport for most of his twenties.

It wasn’t until his thirties — as happened with his father — that Adrian returned to the sport. Running, in the words of Adrian appears “in his blood” and he couldn’t stay away.

But for Adrian, it’s not just a way to stay in shape or keep his heart rate up. He genuinely — which, as Adrian acknowledges, is perhaps a bit peculiar for many to understand — loves running.

“Even if there was a way to magically make myself permanently in good shape without running, I still would want to run,” Adrian said. “I enjoy it that much. I would definitely miss it if I didn’t do it regularly.”

Adrian remained true to his word. As the mayor of Washington D.C. for four years from 2007-2011, he would wake up in the early mornings before work and run. He credits endurance as a valuable tool not only for running, but for various facets of life.

“If you are good at endurance sports, you can wear down the competition,” Adrian said. “That’s the theory and the hope. Whatever the competition happens to be. Whether it’s in business, politics, academics or sport. Hopefully you’ll outlast everybody.”

Adrian never wanted his twin sons to participate in track and field, believing it to be a “burn-out sport.” He did though, hope the two would find the same sport and stick with it.

Tennis happened to be that sport. They could play — and enjoyed — football and basketball but by the time Andrew and his brother Matthew were eight years old, they could succeed at tennis together.

And as with Phil Fenty and his sons, tennis became a family affair for Adrian and his twin sons and daughter Aerin, born in 2008. It became a sport that the five of them enjoyed and relished both playing and watching.

For Andrew, that led him to compete for Michigan.

***

No one ever pushed Andrew to play tennis. “Tennis was always my thing," he said. While his father and grandfather would passionately run miles on end, Andrew was drawn to the tennis court, specifically the hard court.

He loves the speed of the game of the tennis and, on hard courts, the speed of the ball.

But Andrew recognizes the power that running so often as a child provided him. He understands the benefits it gave him to succeed in tennis. It also put the sport in perspective for him, something tangible that he reflects on during matches.

“It shows me that whatever I do, playing tennis for three or four hours going side to side, is nothing,” Andrew said. “It’s nothing at all. What these guys do is just run. The only way to get better at running, is running. It’s more mental than anything.

“When I’m out there, I think I can do this, I do it all the time. I can run longer, I can run faster. That’s what I tell myself.”

He has succeeded. He leads the Michigan tennis team in victories this season and is expected to lead the Wolverines this weekend when they begin the Big Ten Tournament.

Fleet Feet too, provided invaluable lessons for Andrew. According to Phil, the right tennis shoe is crucial to success and it is vital to take care of one’s feet in tennis when the player moves from side-to-side for multiple hours.

His grandfather also taught him the importance of the mental aspect in tennis. The role of working with his teammates and coaches to achieve their best goal.

Most significantly though, the Fenty family fostered a goal of exercise and sport. They honed it with the establishment of the Washington D.C. Fleet Feet in 1984. Each member has spent time as a sales associate or in other capacities working at the store.

Phil Fenty honed it through running miles and miles and fitting the customers of his store with the proper footwear. And, serving as counsel to his sons and grandchildren in their sporting exploits.

Adrian Fenty honed it through his morning runs, his desire to run no matter where he is or what he’s doing. All that matters is that he has his shorts, shirt and watch.

And finally, Andrew Fenty took the lessons of all those in his family. He took the lessons from Fleet Feet, morning runs with his father and conversations with his grandfather to succeed as a freshman for Michigan tennis.

Being an athlete is simply in his blood.

“In our family generally, everybody’s an athlete,” Phil said. “Male and female. Young and old. All of us. Everybody runs, bikes and swims.  It’s our family’s activity. When we travel, when we go anywhere, we make sure we have facilities where we can exercise.

“It’s always been in our DNA to exercise.”