The Top 12 Olympic Athletes Who Are Plant-Based Vegans and Vegetarians

With the Summer Olympic Games, set to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 5-21st,  approaching fast; I thought an interesting piece for today could be to discuss some Olympic athletes who are vegan. In fact, when you search the phrase "vegan Olympians" into Google, one of the first results you see is simply a question: "Is it possible for an Olympic athlete to be vegan?" Of course, the answer to this is an astounding "yes." With that said, we can acknowledge that vegans definitely make up a growing minority within the Olympic games. 

I see the Olympics as an opportunity to open up discussion about this important topic, considering people from around the world are watching the sports unfold. In fact, I can imagine no greater opportunity to spread the message of living a healthy, plant-based lifestyle than this. To see vegan athletes perform within the top 1% of athletes across the world is incredible, and comes to be a testament that the food we eat can truly nourish our bodies.

When discussing the Olympic sporting event and these vegan Olympians, a question about protein intake is likely to arise. Often protein is associated with meat, as a direct result of the meat industry pushing the notion that it is the "best" source of protein for our diets. The truth of this is crystal clear by seeing state and federal government dietary recommendations in the form of the "food pyramid," which recommends a balanced diet that includes, quite heavily, food cultivated by and from livestock. But did you know, there are many excellent vegan protein sources? Plant life offers us the same, if not better, opportunities to get this vital macro-nutrient in our diets, and we can see the results of healthy protein intake (among other equally important nutrients) on these Olympian diets.

The Top 12 Olympic Athletes Who Are Plant-Based Vegans and Vegetarians

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1). Carl Lewis

One of the best known vegan Olympians in the U.S. is track star Carl Lewis. In the course of his career spanning the years of 1979 to 1996, he managed to acquire 10 medals, 9 of which were gold, representing the top spot. One of the main reasons Carl Lewis decided to turn vegan was for the health benefits (of which there are many), and the benefit that he would feel far more satiated by the food he was eating without eating an excessive amount of calories.

I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look. I know that sounds vain, but all of us want to like the way we look. I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.
— Carl Lewis
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2). Hannah Teter

This vegetarian Olympian can be seen performing during the Winter Olympic Games in the extreme sport of snowboarding. She has even won a Gold medal in the sport! In 2010 she told the Huffington Post, “I feel stronger than I’ve ever been, mentally, physically, and emotionally. My plant-based diet has opened up more doors to being an athlete. It’s a whole other level that I’m elevating to. I stopped eating animals about a year ago, and it’s a new life. I feel like a new person, a new athlete.”

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3). Edwin Moses

One thing I really like about Edwin Moses is that he just seems like a genuine and nice guy, just from looking at that big grin on his face. This expectation is made a reality when you come to notice that he lives a sustainable, plant-based lifestyle and is a humanitarian and peace advocate. For nearly a decade, he was a professional runner who set a large number of records. He is still considered "one of the greats" in the sport, and serves as a core inspiration for those of us wanting to live a plant-based lifestyle but need an extra kick out the door.

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4). Murray Rose

An active Australian swimming Olympian during the 50's, Murray Rose (sometimes referred to as the "Seaweed Streak") is a well noted to have been a vegan. He has shown how vegan athletes can perform as well, and better, than non-vegan athletes out there by setting 15 world records, and winning 6 Olympic medals, 4 of which were Gold. He has since passed on at the age of 73 from leukemia, but he will be forever remembered both for his athletic skills and for his plant-based lifestyle which he has stated made a large impact on his performance.


5). Charlene Wong Williams

As a professional figure skater, Charlene Wong has seen the results of a plant-based diet first hand when paired with an intense practice regimen. While she has gone on the record with lifeSkate to not always stick perfectly to a vegetarian diet, she still deserves credit as her motivation for sticking to a plant-based diet is rooted in a desire to end animal cruelty and support a healthier life.

I would call myself a “conscious eater”. It all started with my desire to be as lean and healthy as possible as a teenager around 17-years-old. With more education, as well as trial and error, it also turned into an expression of my attempt to show compassion for all living things.
— Charlene Wong

6). Bill Pickering

You may recognize Bill Pickering (a UK based athlete) for setting the world record for swimming the English channel and breaking the world record for swimming the Bristol Channel when he was a 48-year-old vegetarian, but he was also a plant-based Olympian who performed quite well at swimming.

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7). Andreas Cahling

An Olympic weightlifter and bodybuilder, Andreas Cahling is an athlete that has been controversial regarding his diet. These days, it is difficult to determine whether he is vegan, vegetarian, or eating meat and dairy. Assuming past reports are true, at least at peak times of this bodybuilder's performance, he was a vegan. While he certainly has a physique that has endured the test of time, one can only hope that the rest of his health will be able to stay in check to accommodate his body.

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8). Ronda Rousey

The name "Ronda Rousey" may ring a bell because she is one of the most recent Olympic competitors on this list. She is also one of the more controversial as she has changed diets throughout the course of her career. There is speculation that she caved under social pressure from her coach and other external pressure which left her not eating a vegan diet while training and competing in judo during the 2008 Summer Games. After winning the bronze medal, she has converted to a vegan lifestyle of sustainability and cleaner nutrition.

9). Surya Bonaly

Both a vegetarian and PETA activist, Surya Bonaly has performed in the Olympics multiple times over. While she has not finished in any of the top 3 spots as of yet, her performance record in other competitions is quite impressive: three-time World Championship silver medalist, a five-time European Champion, and a nine-time French National Champion for pro figure skating.

10), Chris Campbell

I'm not sure that I would ever do well as a wrestler even though I live a plant-based lifestyle. With that said, Olympian Chris Campbell definitely represents this niche of the plant-based community quite well. He won a bronze medal in wrestling during the 1992 Olympic Games, and is one of the oldest performers to have done so. Of course, age is relative in the Olympics, and he was considered old at age 37. Certainly his plant-based diet has proved to be the fuel needed to land those take downs, and I expect if he continues on this path he will continue to see success, whether it be in continued competitive sporting events or within his own personal life.

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11). Bode Miller

Another Winter Games performer, Bode Miller is a professional Olympic skier who performed in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. He won 5 medals during these performances. He has been a vegetarian since birth, and is a leading advocate for sustainable organic farming.

12). Debbi Lawrence

Last on our list is Debbi Lawrence, a three-time Olympian and world record holder in the women's 5k race-walk event. She has attributed her athletic success to her plant-based diet and hard work.

We look forward to seeing some new faces in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and expect that more athletes operating on a plant-based diet will turn up as numbers of vegan Olympians and vegetarians continue to increase around the world. I hope that most on this list can serve as some great inspiration, and represent real success on a plant-based diet.