Two years ago on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, the fitness industry — ripe for change like so many others — was subject to a massive accountability check. Brands, organizations, and media platforms faced wake up calls led by consumer demand for change, including, but not limited to, better representation, more equitable hiring and product diversity. But long before that wake up call, D.C. athlete Marcus Fitts was refining his purpose to build a better fitness future. Here we chat about barriers (and how he’s breaking them down), brands that talk the talk and walk the walk, what he sees as opportunity and how he’s carving more space into the narrow tunnels of the multi-sport world.
Fitts has, for years, worked toward creating space and opportunity for Black and Brown athletes. He is a triathlete and the founder of GRIT USA, an adult multi-sport team and development program based here in the DMV as well as a triathlon coach certified by the USAT ( the governing body of triathlon here in the states). And he also sits on its DEIA Advisory Council.
“When I was looking to join other triathlon teams, they were not having the conversations I was looking to have,” Fitts says. “I needed to find a group of people to have those conversations with and eventually I found that more people wanted the same thing.”
Enter GRIT USA. Currently in its third year, GRIT is so much more than a triathlon team (something Fitts is quick to emphasize). By and large, it’s a multi-sport development program for adult and high school athletes. It educates around career pathways and sponsorships. At its core, though, is a critical mission: to enact socio-cultural change. GRIT seeks to challenge governing bodies of sport, increase the multi-sport enrollment of People of Color, inspire communities, and bridge the performance gap for athletes. You won’t see the word diversity here, because as Fitts points out, “Anyone can come together to showcase diversity. Inclusion is ‘how do we make [tri]suits that fit you?’”
In other words, being action-oriented. And when you look at Fitts’ Instagram profile, what trails is a curated and covetable list of brands (including Rapha, Varlo, Trek and Lululemon) that have proven through action they’re along for Fitts’ mission. They’ve put their money where their proverbial mouths are and offer a collaborative relationship that spans beyond social currency.
“Lululemon has been consistent in elevating minority voices and diverse body types — especially here in DC,” Fitts tells me, emphasizing the brand’s willingness to provide a space and a platform.
For example, this month, GRIT is partnering with Lululemon for “Rest Is Revolutionary,” a Black History Month yoga event series at the brand’s Georgetown location led by local yoga instructors Tai Phoenix and Rachel Baylor.
When it comes to barriers and body comfort in the apparel space, he mentions his collaboration with Varlo.
“A lot of companies don’t make gear for larger bodies and these are some of the ways we are overcoming barriers both for adults and high school kids.”
As an ambassador for Varlo, he’s also been able to put his graphic design background to use to design suits and pick fabrics that work for different body types.
In the last couple of years, Fitts and Team GRIT have received accolades for their work and commitment to an inclusive multi sport experience. Almost a year ago, his team was featured on the cover of Triathlete Magazine. In a sport and media landscape synonymous with racial homogeneity, this milestone might represent change to come.
But, Fitts tells me “conversations around why representation matters have gotten worse,” as he recalls a thread last year on Triathlete Magazine’s Facebook Page that was overwhelmed with racist comments in response to an article about GRIT USA and the work they’re doing to amplify minority voices in sport.
“It always comes up, anytime Black, Brown, or Asian voices are elevated, the backlash is always about not understanding why it needs to be about color or race.”
Fitts is a member of the USAT DEIA Advisory Council, yet even he expresses concern with its lack of activity.
“There’s no one in leadership helping; I’ve never even been part of a meeting. It’s as if there’s nobody at the top to help address those issues and why representation does matter.”
And if there’s no one at the top representing these issues, we can speculate what, if anything, is being done to build the base — or a strong middle for that matter. Fitts is laser-focused on both.
When it comes to his own team, GRIT is uber selective. Though, before you raise an eyebrow at the aforementioned talk of inclusivity, understand that Fitts is creating a careful and considered space with an incredibly democratic process. Applicants meet with each of the existing team membersto ensure it’s a good fit for the team and for the individuals.
Fitts is a self-described ecosystem builder. Nowhere is this more true than in his ability to create multidisciplinary spaces that did not exist previously.
“There hasn’t been a [multi sport] team that accommodates the gray area that a lot of athletes find themselves in, to bridge the gap between a novice and an elite level athlete and fill a void for athletes who want to take their ability to the next level.”
GRIT has recently added a cycling team, an idea brought forward by a team member and encouraged by Fitts.
On the flip side of the sport, triathlon participation hasn’t shown growth since 2019. Fitts attributes this to a lack of feeder system and incentive.
“A lot of athletic directors, especially here in the urban communities, don’t even know what it is. How can you grow a sport when you don’t know what it is?”
There’s no formal NCAA triathlon program, only clubs, which means there’s no substantial higher education pathway that can incentivize low-income families to encourage their children to pursue what is already a costly sport. These are sentiments Fitts has heard first-hand from caretakers he speaks with about enrolling their children in triathlon. That’s where GRIT’s High School Development Program comes in.
The program began as a two-student sponsored athlete program, with support from heavy hitters in the industry. Popular triathlon goods company Quintana Roo provided wetsuits and bike frames last year. And when they couldn’t get parts due to a global shortage, parts-maker Shimano donated them. The bikes were then built with the help of local shop High Road Cycling (located in a space formerly occupied by Rapha, the brand Fitts credits with getting him into cycling — and ultimately triathlon). Innerforce Sports provided the custom tri-suit and Kinetic Multisport, a local East Coast race producer, gifted all of the race entries. American Bicycle Company, Quintana Roo’s parent company, provided a staff writer to document the stories of the two students in the brand’s quarterly emails and on their social media platforms.
“I didn’t want to swim in high school solely because of the spandex. I didn’t want to be teased or made fun of. But having it documented and shared everywhere, we’ve now made it cool for these students. The willingness to participate in non-mainstream activities goes up.”
In 2022, the high school program will evolve. Instead of a two-athlete sponsorship, Fitts plans to boost education through clinics and camps which will cast a bigger net to reach even more students and create that ever so critical movement: access. In a world where most triathlon camps screen for privilege before the camp has even started, hearing this was a breath of fresh air.
Fitts’ goal with the program is to make it a case study that will ultimately make triathlons a high school sport.
“We want to build and change the dynamic of high school sports in the DMV and tell the Board of Education that we can do a lot with a little.”
As for where opportunity still exists, Fitts’ hope is that events that amplify Black and Brown voices transcend the month of February and go beyond.
“Where I’m seeing growth is in not making it a trend…Things have to be created and flourish before you can have any resolve. I want to create something here and show that it can be sustained.”