It’s no secret that 2019 was the year of the plant-based athlete. After all, it was the year that the highly anticipated plant-based athlete documentary, The Game Changers, was finally released to rave reviews from audiences that had been chomping at the bit for years. It was also in 2019 when we learned that some of the world’s greatest athletes follow a plant-based diet, as well as many of the world’s most famous athletes, such as Alex Morgan, co-captain of the US Women’s World Cup winning soccer team. As it turns out, arguably the world’s best and most famous male soccer player, Lionel Messi, also follows a plant-based diet.
Plant-based athletes stretch far beyond the soccer field though, and make their way onto the tennis courts, racetracks, football fields, and in NBA basketball arenas across the country. Runners, bodybuilders, weight lifters, and athletes from all stripes seem to be leaning toward plants for optimal athletic performance more than ever before. Even if they don’t go all the way to becoming fully vegan, such as the plant-centered diet Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady follows, the benefits and results appear to be evident.
The fact that there are TV commercials promoting plant-based products and plant-based diets, during the most watched sporting events, such as Beyond Meat’s Carl’s Jr. Super Bowl commercial of 2019, Kyrie Irving’s Nike/plant-based diet commercial during the 2019 college football national championship game, and the Impossible Burger commercial for Burger King played during pretty much every NBA basketball game I watch, set the stage to make the past year one to remember as a turning point, perhaps leading to a future tipping point.
This past year was not just the year that we discovered a whole bunch of world class athletes who had (in some cases) been quietly/secretly following a plant-based diet for athletic performance benefits, trying to out-strategize their omnivorous counterparts, but also the year that many world class athletes were inspired to adopt a plant-based diet. That means 2020 will be full of brand new elite plant-based athletes from myriad sports in all corners of the world. Some big-name retired athletes have recently gone plant-based like former Tour de France champion, Chris Froome, and Iron Addicts legend, C.T. Fletcher, but retired athletes have long been drawn to a plant-based diet for improved health, so that’s not much of a surprise. You may recall that Mike Tyson became vegan in his retirement, which helped him drop 160 pounds and reclaim his health, and plenty of bodybuilders I used to hang around two decades ago have now embraced a plant-centered diet. The impact, as I see it, often comes from those who are currently competing at a high level in sports who go plant-based and can demonstrate measurable changes in their athletic performance. We’ve seen that for years in mixed martial arts, running, bodybuilding, weightlifting, tennis, football, and basketball, and with many athletes, especially those in the NBA, opting for plant-based fuel for their sports endeavors, 2020 should be another year for the record books. NBA All-Star, Chris Paul, gives us a sneak peek of what to expect as he became an All-Star for the 10th time, but just the first time since 2016, after he switched to a plant-based diet over the past year. Other examples are plentiful, and encouraging, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, and instead, let’s reflect back on the epic year for the plant-based athlete that was 2019.
Many readers likely know the common benefits of a plant-based diet on athletic performance, namely, increased energy, reduced inflammation, and improved recovery, which brings so many athletes to the plant-based diet in the first place, so let’s get right to it and learn who crushed it in 2019.
These are my Top 10 Plant-Based Athletes who absolutely crushed it in 2019:
#10: Natalie Matthews. Natalie, a bikini competitor in one of the divisions within the larger bodybuilding and fitness industry, turned pro in 2018 within the IFBB (International Federation of Body Builders) as one of the top bikini competitors in the world. In 2019, she competed across the country, placing as high as 4th in an Olympia-qualifying pro show at the Battle at the Falls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, just one spot behind three-time world champion, Ashley Kaltwasser. Natalie also placed 7th at the IFBB Indy Pro in Indianapolis, Indiana in her first full season as an IFBB Pro. Her bikini division is the most popular, and therefore most competitive, of any category within the bodybuilding industry. In addition to being one of the world’s top bikini competitors, Natalie is a former professional surfer, and is a professional chef and cookbook author. If 2019 was any indication of what to expect from Natalie in the future, it’s a good bet that 2020 will be even more epic for the Puerto Rican chef turned world renowned fitness model.
They say that success leaves clues, and if we can glean any insight into the mindset of a champion of multiple sports, what we can learn from Natalie is that when she sets a goal, she creates a plan, develops habits, and set her sights on achieving her goals because of deliberate actions she takes daily. I’ve worked with Natalie, toured with Natalie, and have come to learn that her passion combined with her work ethic is the recipe that fuels her success. The takeaway here is to look inside and find what your own passion is, or what your deep interests are, and to create action plans for daily steps that get you closer to your goal. It could be as simple as writing a goal down that you see every single day, or waking up early to complete your workout before your day gets away from you. With Natalie, it’s all about priorities, and if it matters to her, she’ll find a way, and it has served her well as a newcomer to a sport where she is already one of the best on the planet.
For more information about Natalie, and to see how she crushed it in 2019, follow her on Instagram at @fitveganchef or on www.fitveganchef.com.
#9: Torre Washington. Torre is a champion bodybuilder and physique competitor at the highest level, and he has been either a vegetarian or vegan nearly his entire life. He earned his IFBB professional status in 2018, and competed throughout the past year, placing as high as 3rd at the first fully drug-tested IFBB Pro show in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He also finished 4th at the Muscle Contest in Los Angeles, California. Along with his top 5 finishes at the most prestigious level of professional bodybuilding, within the most competitive category of men’s physique, Torre also traveled the world promoting the plant-based athlete lifestyle from Australia to Mexico. He is a sought after personal trainer, eBook author, coach, and international public speaker. Torre is also featured in the film, From The Ground Up, and he has become one of the most influential vegan bodybuilders in the world.
Torre’s success stems from a sincere desire to help others. This is evident to anyone who has followed him online in recent years, and very clear to me, as someone who has known Torre for more than a decade. Torre is also a true fan of the sport he competes in. He cheers on other competitors, and wants to see everyone become the best versions of themselves. In a sport that is inherently competitive, based on subjective judging, where athletes are quite literally compared to one another on stage, Torre is a fan of the process. He knows that at the end of the day, it’s him vs. him and he has never lost sight of that. It is that approach that has made him one of the best vegan bodybuilders in the world, and certainly one of the most influential. A lesson to be learned from Torre is to smile often, lift others up, and share your passion for whatever you are in to with others. Torre always seems happy, and it is likely that positive attitude that keeps him ahead of the competition in a fairly isolated sport of bodybuilding.
For more information about Torre, and to see how he crushed it in 2019, follow him on Instagram at @torre.washington or on www.torrewashington.com.
#8: Mary Schneider. Mary is a long distance runner who qualified for the 2020 USA Olympic Trials in the marathon. With a personal best time of 2:42.01 (which is a 6-minute and 11-second mile pace for 26.2 miles), she qualified for the USA Olympic Trials in 2019, and eyes the Toyko 2020 Olympic Summer Games. Over the past year, Mary has been a key member of the Prado Racing Team in San Diego, CA, and she became the 2019 San Diego USATF XC Women’s Champion. With a blistering pace for the half marathon at 1 hour, 17 minutes and 38 seconds, which is a 5-minute and 56-second mile pace, she has been an Overall Female Winner in races from her native San Diego to Virginia Beach, and from Lehigh Valley to Delaware.
As a plant-based athlete since 2017, Mary has seen a significant improvement in her athletic performance, recovery after training, and has set her all-time personal records in distances from 5k to marathon. She works as a holistic nutritionist and is a USATF certified running coach, having coached beginners to those who have qualified for Olympic Trials. If that wasn’t enough, Mary is also a lawyer and a yoga instructor, and leads by example as she follows her passion to make her dreams happen.
What I find especially inspiring about Mary is that she took time away from the sport of competitive running (to pursue a law degree and get her career started), but then she returned to running at the highest level and performed at her very best. I think a great lesson from her example is that it is never too late to do what you love. I know first hand as a former runner, turned bodybuilder, turned runner again, (and eventually turned weight lifter again) that even after a long hiatus, success and joy can be found in a sport you love. So if there is a sport that tugs at your heart, but that you haven’t pursued in quite some time, today could be the perfect day to do something again for the first time.
For more information about Mary, and to see how she crushed it in 2019, follow her on Instagram at @greenbodymary or on www.greenbodyrunner.com.
#7: Liz Cambage. Liz is a professional basketball player in the WNBA, as an all-star center for the Las Vegas Aces. Following her exceptional 2018 season, where she set a WNBA scoring record with 53 points scored in a single game, she returned to the WNBA all-star game in 2019 and led her team to the post season playoffs. In addition to being a three-time WNBA all-star, Liz was also named to the 2019 All-WNBA Second Team, and she finished the season ranked 10th in the league in scoring, 7th in rebounding, and 6th in blocked shots. Liz not only had another breakout basketball season, but she also had a breakout year as an international star when she graced the cover of ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue. Her six foot eight-inch, 216-pound frame was displayed on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s most anticipated issue of the year, where famous athletes from the NFL, NBA, WTA, MLB, MLS, WNBA and others pose nude or semi-nude, showing their professional athlete bodies in tasteful ways. This past year was the 11th year of the ESPN Magazine Body Issue. Liz joins previous cover models that include hugely famous athletes such as Serena Williams, Adrian Peterson, Megan Rapinoe, and Diana Taurasi (who, along with Serena, is also a plant-based athlete). Liz is a part of a growing group of WNBA and NBA players who have adopted a plant-based diet. Other notable plant-based basketball stars include Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, and the aforementioned, Diana Taurasi.
Excelling in sports hasn’t always come easy for Liz. In fact, she has spoken openly about her struggles with mental health. She penned an open letter to the Players Tribune where she shared her own struggles, but also with some uplifting words for readers, including, in a description of her letter, “I just want everyone to remember that we are all human, we all have our ups and downs and we should never be ashamed of our feelings. And please remember to be kind to one another, for you never know what others are going through.” There are many lessons here, including the simple fact that we all have feelings, no matter how famous we are, and fame, success, and money don’t make underlying issues go away. Liz encourages us to address our feelings, embrace them, and talk about them, before they take control over us.
For more information about Liz, and to see how she crushed it in 2019, follow her on Instagram at @ecambage or on www.twitter.com/ecambage.
#6: Morgan Mitchell. Morgan, and Olympic sprinter, is a star of the blockbuster film, The Game Changers, and she had an incredible 2019 season on the track. Between distances of 200 and 1,600 meters, she racked up three 1st place finishes, and a whopping 13 top 3 finishes. She also won multiple relay races and had four top 3 finishes in the 4 x 400 meter team relay. In addition to her native Australia, Morgan competed around the world, taking her talents to China, Italy, Great Britain, France, Qatar, Japan, and the United States. With the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics around the corner, keep an eye out for Morgan to crush it in 2020 too.
As Morgan addresses in The Game Changers, she is looking for an edge as an elite athlete, and she discovered an edge through diet. Many of us talk about results we want to achieve someday, as simple as a New Year’s Resolution, or as lofty as qualifying for the Boston Marathon, but there is a fundamental difference between talking and wishing for outcomes, and by taking actions to make them happen. Morgan knows that today’s workout impacts tomorrow, and that hundreds of days in the future, the Olympic Games take place. Having a goal, setting a target, and working day and day out to get to a destination that is far off in the distance, sometimes four years away, is the mentality of an Olympic athlete. Whether you have aspirations of being one of the best in the world at what you love, or you simply want to have more energy and a better mood, take a page out of Morgan’s playbook and focus on the future by making the most of today.
For more information about Morgan, and to see how she crushed it in 2019, follow her on Instagram at @morganmitch or on www.teammathewsrunning.com.au.
#5: Hin Chun Chui. Hin is a vegan bodybuilder, and is quickly emerging as one of the most successful and dominant competitive bodybuilders in the industry. He had an absolutely incredible year in 2019, winning 6 first place trophies, following a year of taking home gold 6 times in 2018. Competing around the world, promoting the vegan bodybuilding lifestyle, Hin has become an international star. Winning the IFBB Denmark Pro Nordic World Show in multiple divisions, as well as the IFBB Canada Ben Weider Natural Championship in physique and in bodybuilding, and the IFBB Asia Pro Qualifier Taiwan in two divisions at the end of December, capped off an outstanding year for Hin taking on the world stage. With twelve first place finishes, including multiple world championships over the past two years, while just in his early twenties, Hin has an incredibly bright future in the sport of bodybuilding and beyond.
Something I’ve learned from Hin after watching him compete in person, and from meeting him, as well as following his career for years, is that he doesn’t let anything get in his way. He literally trains six or seven days a week, allowing his body to adapt to a high workload, just like a marathon runner is able to sustain a training routine of six or seven days a week of running as a result of adaptation, and he has conditioned himself to manage a high volume of exercise to achieve his goals. He believes he can be one of the best in the world, and he enthusiastically pursues that mission because of his love for the vegan lifestyle and he desire to spread awareness of veganism as a result of his athletic success as a vegan bodybuilder. Hin is also humble and gracious and knows that to be great at anything takes a team effort, and is quick to thank his training partners, coaches, sponsors, and fans who cheer him on along the way. That’s a lesson that all of us can get behind. Be grateful, but stay hungry.
For more information about Hin, and to see how he crushed it in 2019, follow him on Instagram at @vegan_bodybuilder_hin_chui or on www.cleanmachineonline.com.
#4: Robbie Balenger. Robbie is an ultra endurance athlete, best known for his 3,175-mile run across the United States over the course of 75 days from March to May of 2019. That’s a minimum of running 40 miles per day for 75 consecutive days, with an average of 42.3 miles covered daily, with no days off, which is unimaginable for most people. Not only did he run from Los Angeles to New York in two and a half months, he did it largely to raise awareness of the power of a plant-based diet. Robbie’s transcontinental run was sponsored by the Texas-based vegan ice cream company, Nada Moo, and his effort raised awareness of the dairy-free lifestyle at large. Robbie appeared on the Rich Roll Podcast at the end of 2019, reaching a vast audience, sharing his unique journey across the country.
I followed Robbie’s journey across the country, and was tempted to meet up with him and run a few miles alongside him in Arizona when he passed through my state. When I met him months later in Southern California, I shared with him my thoughts of joining him along his journey (as many others did during the course of his campaign) which I regrettably never did. Robbie’s accomplishment reminds of other great plant-based endurance runners, especially Scott Jurek and Rich Roll. But the mindset to accomplish such a feat most reminds me of the late Steve Prefontaine who was America’s greatest running legend in the ‘70s known for testing the limits of the human heart. Robbie had the audacity to believe he could run substantially further than a marathon every single day for 75 consecutive days, and so he did. If he can believe in himself enough to make that dream happen, imagine what potential lies in each one of us. What dreams do you feel like chasing? What goals do you want to conquer?
For more information about Robbie, and to see how he crushed it in 2019, follow him on Instagram at @robbiebalenger or on www.plantpoweredmission.com.
#3. Lewis Hamilton. Lewis is a Formula One racecar driver, considered to be one of the greatest of all-time in the sport. He is a six-time Formula World Champion driving a Mercedez on race tracks around the world. In 2019, he seemed to be winning races around every turn. Lewis took the first place crown a record 11 times, including in four consecutive races, and six out of seven consecutive starts. He brought home the title from racetracks in Bahrain, China, Spain, Monaco, Canada, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Russia, Mexico, and Abu Dhabi. Lewis uses his platform, including his Instagram audience of more than 14 million followers, to promote a plant-based diet. As an executive producer of The Game Changers, Lewis made a big splash in 2019 among a plant-based community largely previously unaware of his accomplishments on the racetrack. He speaks out for animals and the environment, and crosses over into various other ventures beyond the racetrack, including fashion. Lewis set an all-time record in Formula 1 racing with 413 points and 17 podiums in 2019, with his sights set on a bright racing season in 2020.
I’ve never met Lewis, but have followed him online for many months, once I heard about his involvement with The Game Changers. Something that strikes me as particularly inspiring about Lewis is that he seems to be more authentic than many other celebrity athletes. He really appears to have a quiet confidence about him that is a strength that sets the tone for the success he achieves in sports, in business, and in life. He comes across as truly himself, whether you like it or not, and there is something highly admirable about that as viewer and fan watching from afar. If Lewis can have a positive influence on millions of others to communicate the idea that it is okay to be yourself, he will have done a great service to humanity.
For more information about Lewis, and to see how he crushed it in 2019, follow him on Instagram at @lewishamilton or on www.lewishamilton.com.
#2. Novak Djokovic. Novak is the number one ranked men’s tennis player in the world. In 2019, he lived up to the #1 world ranking by winning five tournaments, including the Australian Open, Madrid Open, Japan Open, Paris Masters, and the prestigious Wimbledon title in epic fashion over Roger Federer in one of the greatest championship matches in history. With a 57-11 singles record, and more than $13 million in tournament earnings in 2019, we can safely say that Novak crushed it last year. Like Lewis Hamilton, Novak is also an executive producer of The Game Changers and has used his platform to encourage others to adopt a plant-based diet. The sport of tennis is no stranger to plant-based athletes. Venus and Serena Williams have dominated the sport for decades, and for the past ten years they have followed a mostly or exclusively plant-based diet. Martina Navratilova is considered to be one of the greatest female tennis players of all-time and is a long-time vegetarian. Novak adds his name to the list of highly successful professional tennis champions who embrace a plant-based diet.
As the year, and the decade came to a close, Novak was named the ATP’s Men’s Tennis Player of the Decade. But not to be complacent, he kicked off 2020 with a bang by winning the Australian Open for the eighth consecutive year and is on pace to become the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. What I like about Novak is that it seems like every time I see him talking on camera, he is discussing a plant-based diet. Being the best in the entire world in his sport, and open about his plant-based diet, will hopefully encourage others, from world class athletes to weekend warriors to feel comfortable with the expression, “I am a plant-based athlete.”
For more information about Novak, and to see how he crushed it in 2019, follow him on Instagram at @djokernole or on www.novakdjokovic.com.
#1. Alex Morgan. Alex is the co-captain of the US Women’s World Cup Champion soccer team, and she uplifted an entire nation with her performance in the 2019 Women’s World Cup. As arguably the most popular athlete of the year, with her summer spent in the global spotlight, this plant-based athlete World Cup champ is my 2019 Plant-Based Athlete of the Year. Alex not only let her skill on the soccer field do the talking, but she graced magazine covers, appeared on television shows, and won awards all year as the quintessential champion of champions. Alex provided inspiration to an entire gender, and entire nation, and to the world at large on the biggest stage in the world’s most popular sport.
Fueled by plants, Alex has established herself as one of the greatest of all-time in her sport and will remain a sports icon for years to come. It comes at no surprise that Alex made the TIME 100 Most Influential People list for 2019. Like Torre, Alex was also featured in the plant-based athlete documentary, From The Ground Up. With her long list of accolades and awards, perhaps her most exciting news of 2019 was announced in October when she and her husband shared the news that they are expecting a baby girl in April.
The thing that inspires me about Alex is that she was already on the world stage as a famous athlete and she didn’t let that deter her from changing her diet to eat exclusively plants. Often times, the world’s greatest athletes have been discouraged from changing their approaches to nutrition or training with a fear from coaches, teammates, nutritionists, team sponsors and team owners that their performance will be impacted in a negative way. Alex showed that it was okay to trust her gut and eat in alignment with her beliefs, as she walked right into the global spotlight as the brightest star of 2019 of any athlete in any sport.
For more information about Alex, and to see how she crushed it in 2019, follow her on Instagram at @alexmorgan13 or on www.alexmorgansoccer.com.
With all the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the plant-based athlete lifestyle, 2019 set the tone for an even bigger and better 2020. I am especially looking forward to the continued influence The Game Changers is having on current world-class athletes, as well as thousands of weekend warriors and fitness enthusiasts around the globe. Perhaps the most intriguing for me personally is the growing number of NBA basketball players who are adopting a plant-based diet. Some plant-based NBA stars to keep an eye on include Chris Paul, Deandre Jordan, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, and Kyrie Irving. There are plenty of other plant-centered NBA stars such as J.J. Redick, Victor Oladipo, Harrison Barnes, and Damian Lillard, and they, along with the vegan NBA players, are the ones I tend to cheer for. As a big basketball fan, I take great delight in knowing that on any given day, I can turn on the TV to an NBA game and see a plant-based basketball player making an impact on the court.
I am discovering more and more plant-based athletes all the time, in person and online, including athletes in major professional sports, and others setting world records. Though it’s almost a year away, I already look forward to writing my list of top plant-based athletes of 2020, but it’s probably going to be a lot longer than just the Top 10. Perhaps we’ll do a Top 20 for 2020, and I can’t wait to share who makes the biggest impact this year.
For a deeper look into the plant-based athlete lifestyle, including meal plans, recipes, workouts and health and fitness tips, visit the websites and social media pages of the plant-based athletes featured here. Together, let’s make 2020, and each year forward, the year of the Vegan Strong athlete.
- Robert Cheeke, author of Shred It!, Director of Vegan Strong – www.veganstrong.com