Arab Triathlon Champion Lawrence Fanous speaks exclusively to TriRadar
British-based Arab Triathlon Champion Lawrence Fanous talks exclusively with TriRadar about his way into the sport, being the first Jordanian elite triathlete and the growing profile of triathlon in the Middle East.
Born in Amman, Jordan’s capital, Lawrence Fanous has progressed through the international elite triathlon ranks and can now proudly call himself the world’s best Arab triathlete. Now 27, he’s helping to drive the growth of the sport in the Middle East. His sporting career began at just four years old.
“Taekwondo’s quite a big sport in Jordan and one of the only sports we’ve won an Olympic medal in, so it was the first sport I ever did,” says Fanous. “I progressed pretty quickly because by the time we left Jordan for the UK, just before I was six, I was already halfway to black belt, so that might have been my sport if I’d stayed there.
“Once we’d moved to the UK at the end of 1990, I did tons of sports – cricket football, athletics, rugby – and outside of that, carried on with Taekwondo for a bit. I even did ballroom dancing – it was a bit embarrassing as a kid, but I wish I still had those moves! Then I started swimming.
“Swimming’s not big in Jordan but we moved into a house with a pool and my parents wanted me to learn from a safety point of view. I loved it, though, and after a few months the swim teacher suggested I move to the local swimming club – Falcon SC in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Swimming then became my sport and I eventually made it onto the Notts county swim squad, Nova Centurion, and swam competitively at district level.
“I then picked up running. My nine-session-per-week swim schedule had made me very fit and without much run training, I was medalling at all the county cross-country and athletics championships. I always loved it when I crossed the line and got the feeling that I wanted to do it again, and do it faster!”
As a keen sportsman based close to Loughborough University, home of many of British Triathlon’s development programmes, it was only a matter of time before multi-sport racing came to Fanous’ attention. Sure enough, by age 13, he was already on the path to pro triathlon.
“With my swim and run talent, a teacher at my school – Nottingham High School – suggested I give triathlon a go,” he says. “I didn’t know much about it so I was intrigued to see what it was all about.
“My first race was the Etwall Kids’ Triathlon, a very basic event in Derby. I was on a mountain bike and the course was on grass! I only came 11th and didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I could do better. I remember the buzz of finishing that first race. I did it again the next year and came fourth, which I thought was a good start.”
“It was [local triathlon club] TFN that first took me in – it had a really good kids’ programme at the time, with about 20 children taking part. When I was 15, nearly all the kids in that club went to Loughborough University and did the trials for the World Class Start Programme in 2000. There were children from all over the country.
“It was a 400m swim and a 3km run. After the run I was walking back to get my stuff and chatting to the coach, and he couldn’t believe that I didn’t do much running – I think it was purely the fitness I had from swimming that got me through it.
“Will Clarke also came out of those trials, and he and I were the only ones who got onto the top squad at the time, which gave me a real boost. It meant I started as an elite, really. I had a real want to do the sport and I was being partly funded, so that’s when it got a bit more serious.
“Cycling only really started for me when I got onto the British programme and I’d only really have time to ride at weekends. The emphasis at a young age is on swimming and running anyway, so the cycling miles were never pushed hard. I think there’s a bit too much of a tendency these days to try to heavily train kids in triathlon before they’re ready for the high load of running and cycling.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Fanous though, who had to overcome his fair share of problems to get where he is today. “I actually had a choice of training with a British Triathlon coach or staying with the coaches at TFN. I don’t know now whether it was the right or wrong decision, but I stayed with TFN. I had a little bit of pressure from a coach there to stop the county swimming. It was probably the worst thing I could do at the time because my fitness dropped completely. I was doing half the volume of training I had been.
“So from age 15 to 18 – until I went to university – I basically got worse. It was never going to work because I wasn’t doing enough hours of cardiovascular training. Will [Clarke] went with the British Triathlon squad coach and I didn’t, and he got lots better than I did, much earlier on. But in the long run, it might’ve been better for me because most of the other guys stopped after university because they were totally burnt out.”
Despite the declining performance, Fanous was still absorbed by the sport and determined to continue, enrolling at Loughborough University to study sports science and management.
“From day one, Loughborough has been the place to be for me in triathlon. When I went to uni there in 2003, I really started training properly and began to get better again. I raced for Great Britain to Continental Cup level.
“It probably wasn’t until 2005 that I even had an inkling of racing for Jordan. They didn’t even have a federation back then. The King of Jordan had gone to see the Madrid World Cup race and liked what he saw, so decided he wanted it to happen in his country. They held a test event at the end of 2005 which was when I found out about them forming a federation and being interested in it.
“Racing for Britain at the time, I went over to help them run the race. I was very young and not that confident, so it was hard to put my point across and hard to get listened to, but I think they took some of it on board. The race went well and the next year they held a World Cup event there.”
With the sport’s seeds being planted in Jordan, the idea of racing for the country of his birth quickly began to grow in appeal for Fanous.
“After racing for Britain a few times at the World University Triathlon Championships and a few European Cups, I knew it was always going to be a struggle to get anywhere as a Brit because of the number of people doing it in the UK. The further you go in the sport, the harder it is to keep progressing.
“I also quite like being different and knowing I’d be the only Jordanian triathlete was quite a big draw too – it would differentiate me from everyone else who was racing in Britain.”
While considering the change of kit from blue to green in 2007, Fanous’ racing ambitions were stymied during a training camp in South Africa in an episode that led him to question his future in the sport.
“I went out to train with Will Clarke, who’s one of my best mates. Javier Gomez was coming a few days later, and Jan Frodeno and the German team were all there, so I was in a really good position. We were riding with Fraser Cartmell too. I’d punctured, so I turned around to take the quickest way back to base. I was coming down a hill and a car coming up the other way hit me while turning into a driveway, shattering my femur.
“Suddenly all those advantages I’d had at my disposal were all gone. The first six months after the injury were about deciding what to do. I was never away from the sport in Loughborough, but I took it a little less seriously because it was my chance to do that. It let me finish my degree well, but I definitely had to make that decision to stay in triathlon.
“I wasn’t at a stage where I was making money in the sport and I wasn’t top of the world or anything so it wasn’t automatic that I was going to carry on – it had to be a conscious decision. I remember being out on the bike when I’d recovered a bit. I wasn’t that fit, but I found I was hurting myself in training more than ever before and that was a sign that I definitely still wanted it. There wasn’t anything else that I wanted to be doing.”
Getting back into racing took time, but by 2009, Fanous was back on the start lines of triathlons, sporting a distinctly different kit.
“Breaking my leg was a bit of a turning point as I’d been racing for GB in 2007 and when I came back in 2009 it was a point of change for me. I got myself sponsorship with a kit maker and then I basically had free reign, as Jordan didn’t have a kit or even any athletes! I could do what I wanted with it, so I took the green out of the flag because you didn’t see many green tri suits.”
After a few local races, Fanous was ready to take the leap back onto the world stage…
“I figured that if I was going to be an Asian athlete, I’d better start racing over there and make a name for myself. My first race for Jordan was an Asian Cup event in Japan. It was the first time I’d been abroad for a race further away than Europe and I also had to wait for the affiliation of the federation to come through beforehand, so I couldn’t book my flight and wasn’t on the start list until two days before. It was pretty mad!
“I’ve got the British view that I always like the underdog. Jordan’s a small country that’s not won many medals. My dad’s family is Jordanian and I’m really proud of that side of my heritage. The first time I raced was amazing – especially because I was the first one. The event itself didn’t go great – it was a big eye-opener, showing me how much work I had to do after my injury – but it was so good to be on the elite scene again.
“My parents have just been so supportive. I’ve had a few tough years since breaking my leg and it was a tough decision to come back. They’ve always supported me, but were worried that I wasn’t getting as far as I would like. When I raced for Jordan they were just really excited and proud. They liked the fact I was a bit different and doing it my way.
Since becoming Jordan’s first elite triathlete, Fanous has become more involved with his national governing body for the sport. “I’ve got a great relationship with the Jordan Triathlon Association. It’s been tough for them because they’re very new and within the federation they’re still learning about the sport, that’s why they’re part of the ITU development programme, so the ITU are involved in helping them to get to grips with all the rules of the sport.
“Back in 2010 when I was in Jordan after the Asian Beach Games, I said we needed to do some talent ID in schools, but it’s hard as they don’t have the money – I have to fund myself, so hopefully the Arab Championships will help make the Olympic committee see that the sport needs funding in Jordan. I’m at the forefront of that. It’s my results that count.”
With pressure on his shoulders to perform in the ITU Triathlon Arabic Open Championships, held in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, Fanous was keen that the sport would represent itself as well as possible. “The Arab champs aren’t of massive importance to anyone outside the region but within it, it’s the highlight of the calendar. It’s where anyone interested in triathlon in the Middle East can see the best the region has to offer and can see the progression of the sport in the region, which at the moment is in a very early development phase.
“The officials were doing an amazing job but were struggling to get people to realise it was an ITU race with rules and it needed doing in certain ways, so I was actually a little bit worried about how smoothly it would go, but on the day of the triathlon it was great.
“Even though I’d been in the British winter for five months, I seemed to cope with the heat there quite well, like I did in Abu Dhabi. I spent the whole race off the front, which was great. I managed to lap a couple of people on the bike and got a bit of drafting help from them but it was pretty much just a time trial. Hopefully it’ll be seen as a bit of an exhibition to show my federation and the Arab world where they need to be.
“Winning the title was the most important thing because my federation was there to see it. They can take that away and tell the IOC that they’ve got a champion now and that we deserve some help.”
It wasn’t just Fanous who helped show off Jordan’s multi-sport strength, though – the country also took home medals for the duathlon and junior triathlon championships too.
“I’m hoping that the JOC and sports councils in Jordan will look at our performances, take notice and support us so that we can take our success onto the continental and world stages.
“There’s a lot of raw talent – the junior triathlon champ is from a swimming club and it was his first ever triathlon, so it was really nice to see that there’s an appetite for it. He was spotted at school so a little bit of what I’ve said has sunk in, which was really good.
“It was really nice to see the other nations too. I actually seemed to have a few fans out there, which was a real surprise. People there were really following what I was doing and I found I have a lot of fans in Egypt, Kuwait, UAE and Lebanon among others.”
Since settling comfortably into the position of the world’s best Arab triathlete, Fanous’ efforts have been recognised by the Jordan Triathlon Association. “They’ve been really good with me since my Arab Champs win and have started trying their hardest to secure funding for me for some of my events. They managed to help me with my flights and expenses for my trip to the Philippines for the Asian Championships, for example.”
Fanous has also gained support from the newly-founded Huub-Vekta Velosport Race Team. “Being part of the team means a lot because it takes away the worry of having to find the best kit to use when racing. Dean [Jackson, of Huub] and Martin [Meir, of Vekta Velosport] have all bases covered in that respect. But also, due to their vast experience within the sport over the past 20-plus years, they’re always just a phone call away if I have any problems that I want to discuss, whether it be about what bike I should use for a certain race or if I need them to chat to a race organiser on my behalf to get me a late start to a race!
“It also means I get to use the Archimedes wetsuit, which is really buoyant and flexible, making swimming in it as effortless as a swim in a wetsuit can be. The 4:4 ratio that I use is perfectly balanced for the stronger swimmer and feels like a really fast suit. I also get the benefit of the SKN-1 swim skin in some of my non-drafting races and it’s amazingly quick for when wetsuits aren’t allowed.
“Dean also brought Vekta Velosport into the mix, which is a great little bike shop in Stoke-on-Trent, and Martin, the owner of Vekta, has also been helping me to get bits of kit that I need for races as well as fitting me on my Moda Interval TT bike. My Moda Finale is the nicest road bike I’ve ever ridden. It’s so stiff and light but has also got an aero frame, making it really fast even on solo efforts.”
“I’ve also had help from a company called SHWESS based in Ireland that wanted to help me on the way a little. So I have to thank them a lot for that.”
Since becoming Arab champ, Fanous has also continued racing his packed 2013 season. “I’ve had a lot of races and some decent performances including fifth in Klagenfurt 5150 in Austria, eighth pro at Ironman UK 70.3 (which wasn’t my best race, though) and third in the Jenson Button Trust Triathlon. I was also sixth in a recent French Grand Prix and second in a big-money race over there that attracts lots of the top French athletes. I beat some greats such as Olympians Stephane Poulat and Stephan Bignet, European Cup winner Yohann Vincent and Asian Cup winner Anton Chuchko.
Qualifying for and competing in the 5150 World Championships in Des Moines, USA, has been a major goal in 2013. “I had to make some big decisions after not getting my head round the qualifying criteria properly early on, such as a last-minute entry to Ironman 70.3 UK. This could have impacted heavily on an already packed season with tons of long and close-together flights – between the start of March and the end of July I was already scheduled to be doing 13 races on three different continents.
“It was fitted into a block of four weekends where I was already doing four races but I didn’t really have a choice as it was the only points-scoring I could do – unless I took another flight to the USA and back, which would have been my third trip over there in three months! It was a decision that paid off nicely, and even though I didn’t have the best of races at 70.3 UK, it still helped me to qualify for Des Moines in the end.”
Fanous then travelled to 5150 Zurich, where he swam with the best in the world – including Spain’s Javier Gomez – and put in solid bike and run performances to come eighth in a strong field and claim the valuable points that would see him offered the chance to fly to Des Moines.
“Qualifying for the 5150 world champs has been hard. A lot of people think you can’t do that many races in a season, but I’m doing it. I’ve raced consistently well and trained strategically throughout this season and feel that I deserved my spot on the start line of the biggest paying race in the world. Des Moines is the first world champs I’ve qualified for while competing under the Jordanian flag so I’m really proud of that, but also about being the first Arab athlete to make the 5150 World Champs.
“The race is going to be tough, no doubt. There are some of the biggest players of non-drafting elite triathlon in the world as well as Olympic medallists competing, such as Javier Gomez, Greg Bennett, Stu Hayes, Bevan Docherty and Ivan Vasiliev.
“I’m pretty confident with my swim and am usually up with the top swimmers but I know the bike is going to be really on as everyone sets off well above the actual race pace they end up doing. So my training is reflecting this fast start and I’m hoping to stay with them as long as possible. My run has been consistently pretty good this season – I’ve been one of the faster runners at all of the 5150s I’ve done. I find that running off non-drafting bike races suits me a lot more than the ITU racing.”
Following this hugely exciting race in the US, Fanous will be turning his attention back to the Olympic cycle and flying Jordan’s flag on the biggest of the world’s sporting stages. “The ITU will be back on the agenda later on in the season to set my world ranking a little higher before Olympic qualifying next year. Making the Rio Olympics is what the next three years is all about.
“Everything I do in races and in training is all geared in some way towards qualifying for the Games. At this point in my life there’s nothing I want more. I want to experience the pinnacle of our sport and also be one of very few Jordanians – never mind triathletes – to experience the wonders of the Games. I also want to make Jordanians and Arabs who watch the race feel proud and hopefully inspire more from the region to take up the sport – or any sport, in fact.
“There’s a lot of talent and hunger for success in the region, and if this were channelled better and more sporting opportunities, such as the Abu Dhabi Triathlon, were to arise for people to access sport, then we’d see more Arabs at the top of the world rankings in more sports. I want to put Jordan and the Middle East on the sporting map!”