Like most stereotypes, the idea that vegetarians are all weak and feeble is simply unfounded and untrue. Throughout the years, there have been a host of athletes that have performed at the highest possible levels in their fields – some of which you may find surprising. Just a quick look through our list (which includes Paralympic gold medals, world records, and world champions) it is clear a plant-based diet is certainly no barrier to winning ways.
David Smith MBE
Paralympic gold medallist, rowing
To say David Smith MBE is an incredible athlete doesn’t do justice to his achievements. Despite being born with a clubfoot, which meant his toddler years involved learning to walk in special boots, he went on to represent Great Britain in able-bodied karate between 1993 and 1996, and bobsleigh from 2002 to 2008. He was also the national assistant coach to the British ski team.
When a tumour was discovered on his spinal cord, David underwent an operation but developed a blood clot which paralysed him. This led to a month-long stay in hospital, where David had to learn to walk again. It was while in hospital that David began visualising training in a boat, and just five months later he was fit enough to go rowing on the water. Though he’d only been out of hospital for 14 months, David won gold at the World Rowing Championships, and then went on to win gold in the mixed coxed four at the London 2012 Paralympic games.
In the 2012 New Year’s honours list, David was awarded an MBE for services to rowing.
After rowing, he turned his hand to cycling, and became part of the GB Olympic Development cycling program. In May 2015, he completed the three peaks challenge at Mont Ventoux (which involves cycling up all three sides of the French mountain in one day). Oh yes, and he’s a vegetarian too!
Freerunning, also known as parkour, is a lesser-known sport, but one that nonetheless requires the peak of physical fitness. It is an acrobatic and athletic discipline focused on moving your body in an aesthetically pleasing way involving flips, jumps and climbing. The American-born but UK-based vegan, Tim Shieff who also goes by the name ‘Livewire’, is not only an exponent of this graceful artform, but also a keen animal and environmental activist.
Renowned in the freerunning community for his one-armed handstand, he was photographed in November 2014 climbing some of London’s most iconic buildings in the nude – to raise money for Jamie Oliver’s food education campaign.
The American ultramarathon runner and vegan, Scott Jurek, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest runners of all time. Multiple times he has won some of the sport’s most highly-regarded races, which have staggeringly long racing distances ranging from 100 to 160 miles.
He also broke the US record for distance running over a 24 hour period in 2010, covering an incredible 165.7 miles in a single day. In July 2015, he also broke the record for the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike when he completed the 2,189 mile long trek in just over 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes, breaking the previous record by more than 3 hours.
Nine-time Olympic gold medallist, athletics
With nine Olympic gold medals to his name (two at 100m, one at 200m, two at 4x100m relay and four for the long jump), and eight World Championship gold medals, Carl Lewis is one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century. He even achieved the accolade of ‘World Athlete of the Century’ by the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1999. Carl Lewis became a vegan in 1990 – and the following year he achieved his personal best for the 100m (at 9.86 seconds) and for the long jump (at 8.91m).
Former world no. 1 squash player
35-year-old James Willstrop, who lives in North Yorkshire, is a professional squash player currently in the top 20 PSA world rankings. This vegetarian sportsman’s highest ranking at his sport was in January 2012, when he was the world number one. At 20 years old, James Willstrop was one of the youngest ever players to play for the senior England team, representing his country at both the European and World Team Squash Championships in 2003. More recently, James won gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, defeating New Zealand’s Paul Coll in the final.
Four-time Mr Universe, bodybuilding
Bill Pearl is a former American bodybuilding champion and lacto-ovo vegetarian. He first won the amateur Mr Universe competition in 1953 (beating into a runner-up position a now very well-known Scottish competitor by the name of Sean Connery), then going on to win the professional Mr Universe title in 1956, 1961, 1967, and 1971. His books on weight training and bodybuilding have sold over 400,000 copies.
Former cruiserweight and heavyweight champion, boxing
Having won several championship titles in his boxing career, this British boxer nicknamed “The Hayemaker” was formerly the undisputed cruiserweight world champion, and former WBA heavyweight champion. In 2014, David Haye went vegan. In an interview with The Independent newspaper that year, he explained why he switched to a plant-based diet: “I watched a TV documentary about how animals are farmed, killed and prepared for us to eat. I saw all those cows and pigs and realised I couldn’t be a part of it any more. It was horrible. I did some research to make sure I could still obtain enough protein to fight and, once satisfied that I could, I stopped. I’ll never go back.” David Haye made a brief comeback in 2015, going on to win two out of his four bouts before retiring in 2018.
Former world no 1 tennis player
Martina Navratilova first became the world number one ranked singles tennis player in 1978. During her career, this vegetarian athlete held the top ranking spot for 332 weeks in singles, and a record 237 weeks in doubles. By the time Martina retired in 1994, the Czech-born US citizen had won 167 singles titles, including a record nine at Wimbledon where she also reached the final a further three times. She was once described by another tennis legend, Billie Jean King, as “the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who’s ever lived.”
Billie Jean King
Former world no 1 tennis player
The second vegetarian tennis legend is the American tennis star of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, Billie Jean King. Another inspirational achiever in the sport, she won her first adult tournament at just 17 years old, and became the world number one in 1966. In her 24 year professional career, Billie Jean King clocked up a total of 12 grand slam titles, 16 doubles titles and 11 mixed doubles titles.
Olympic silver medallist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, cycling
At the London 2012 Olympic games, the British track and road racing cyclist, Lizzie Deignan (nee Armitstead) won a silver medal in the 87 mile road race, and in doing so became the first GB medallist of the games. Two years later, she also won gold in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Lizzie told her parents she wanted to be a vegetarian when she was just 10 years of age.
Grandmaster chess player
And finally, not every superhuman achievement requires large muscles. Jon Speelman is a vegetarian champion of a more cerebral type – he’s a grandmaster chess player. As well as gaining a PhD in mathematics from Oxford University, Jon Speelman won the British Chess Championship three times: in 1978 (when he was just 21 years old), 1985 and 1986. In 1989, he was ranked fourth in the world – the year he also beat Garry Kasparov from Russia, probably chess’s best known grandmaster.
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