One of the most common misconceptions about veganism is that this diet is somewhat unhealthy and, in particular, that it does not provide enough proteins for people to gain muscle mass. This has been proven to be wrong by several vegan activists among which Seba Johnson, the youngest-ever athlete, and first black woman to compete in the Olympic Alpine Skiing. Seba took part in her first Olympic games at the young age of 14 and since then has participated in and won several competitions.
Apart from her ski career, Seba is a passionate promoter of the vegan lifestyle and is particularly active on social networks as well as in-person events. Throughout her life, she has visited several schools and youth camps and also helped the vegan cause gain visibility through several media ranging from radio, television, and newspapers.
“I am encouraged by compassionate souls and the love I see in the eyes of those I’ve committed my life to stand up for,” said Seba.
But let’s start from the beginning. How did this all start?
Vegan since birth
“The first question is always, ‘How long have you been vegan?’ and I respond, ‘Since birth.’ Then there is always a confused look of shock and disbelief,” said Seba.
Seba’s mother decided to switch to a completely vegan diet in her early twenties and promised herself that if she ever was to have kids, she would have raised them with the same plant-based diet. Seba remembers watching undercover investigations videos as a kid and reading about veganism in the many pamphlets that were often emailed directly to her house.
“I felt deeply for the animals at an early age,” said Seba, who often felt the need to educate her peers on animal rights and vegan activism.
When her friends would go to her house for sleepovers, Seba would often talk to them about her diet and the reason that brought her and her mother to adopt it.
“I felt it was my duty to show my friends what was happening to animals,” said Seba.
But while her mother was a huge supporter of veganism, her extended family was not always understanding of this lifestyle.
“It was certainly hard going to family holidays and dinner parties at my grandmother’s house with all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins, most of whom would chastise my mother for raising her kids vegan, in front of my sister and me.”
Seba remembers that even though her mother always tried to bring vegan dishes to share at every dinner, her relatives eventually stopped inviting them to family events. But there is a happy ending to this story.
“We have never been quiet about our stance on preventing the suffering of animals and even though we didn’t realize it then, we were planting the seeds of change in their minds,” said Seba.
The benefits of veganism
Switching to a vegan diet has tons of benefits both in terms of our health as well as for the many animals inhabiting our planet. But Seba tends to consider the health benefits as a mere positive consequence of her choices rather than the reasons that lead her to become a vegan activist and prefers to talk about the ethical side.
“I never considered my being vegan was for health reasons. It was always for the love and respect I had for animals,” said Seba. “The benefit for me is the knowledge that I am saving so many lives and not taking one to sustain my own.”
Despite not being her main reason for maintaining this lifestyle, Seba also enjoys the health benefits derived from her diet.
“Maybe it’s my father’s Tutsi Burundi, African genes but I like to attribute the fact that I look younger than my actual age because of my organic vegan lifestyle.”
On top of her young appearance, Seba also stresses how, as a vegan athlete, she can easily avoid getting clogged with dairy products and heavy non nutritious foods.
“We strive to have healthy bodies and minds, and not make ourselves walking graveyards for dead animals and their products.”
Taking a stand
But being a vegan athlete is not always easy and this is certainly not because of the diet. When in 1994, Seba was given the chance to take part in the Winter Olympic Games held in Lillehammer, Norway, she was put in front of a difficult decision. The Norwegian government had recently lifted its moratorium and resumed its usual practice of commercial hunting of minke whales which was clearly in contrast with Seba’s ethics. This is why she decided to take a stand and refused to take part in the Olympics.
But this was not the only time Seba had to abandon an important competition. She was, in fact, also disqualified from a World Cup Ski race after refusing to wear a ski suit that had a leather patch sewn into it.
“They would not understand that for moral and ethical reasons I just couldn’t wear it,” said Seba.
But the biggest challenge this athlete had to face was not related to her dietary choices, but her skin color.
A ‘white men’ sport
“In the sport of ski racing it wasn’t necessarily the non-vegans that weren’t supportive, it was the people who opposed seeing a black person in what they called ‘a white man’s sport’.” said Seba.
While Seba’s mother is a native of New Hampshire, her father was born in the African country of Burundi. Thanks to her mother’s work, Seba was able to travel all over the world and live in several countries, being in contact with different cultures from an early age. This soon taught her compassion, acceptance, and tolerance toward all living creatures.
“Veganism is the ultimate form of compassion. (…) I believe that we will express sincere respect towards each person’s gender, ethnicity, ability or disability, and will to survive only when we turn to a vegan lifestyle, the human evolution of compassion that starts in the heart, not the stomach.” said Seba.
It was also thanks to these constant moving from one country to another that Seba was first introduced to the world of skiing. It was, in fact, in Switzerland that she first saw a ski slope and decided that this was going to be her career.
But while Seba saw no impediment to her dream, along the way she met many who thought skiing was a sport for ‘white’ people only.
“At the tender age of 14, my experience was a startling eye-opening to the various forms of jealousy and the reality of prejudice that exists in the world.” This led Seba to early retirement as she found the racism in her sport “difficult to endure.”
But despite all the hatred, Seba decided to use her experience to inspire other people, especially young kids, to pursue their dream regardless of others’ opinions and prejudices.
“Children would write to me from grade schools asking what my favorite color was and it was these experiences that led me to take tours of elementary and high schools between the ski seasons. I gave inspirational talks, based on my experiences, for those who wanted to attain their own special dream that seemed impossible,” said Seba.
How does an Olympic ski racer train?
But how did Seba manage to be so successful in her sport? Of course, thanks to the right training and diet! Starting from the former, this athlete declared that she used to weight train every day after school and spend eight hours per day skiing during the weekend to then go back to the gym for some extra exercise.
“During the week, I also worked out with my high school ski team lifting weights and stretching, then taking the ski lift chair to the mountaintop where I would train Slalom and Giant Slalom.”
Seba mainly trained her legs, stomach, back, and arms, all of which are fundamental to maintaining balance and speed during competitions.
But now that she has retired, Seba’s working routine is way more relaxed even though it is still incredibly intense. At first, Seba kept skiing for fun until 2008 when she broke her pelvis in a tragic accident. Thankfully she managed to recover, but the process was long and challenging and Seba had to learn to walk all over again.
Following the accident, Seba started to practice yoga at least three times per week, take Zumba and spinning classes, and spend an hour of cardio at least once a week. Apart from this, in her free time, this athlete also enjoys swimming and hiking.
Misconceptions about veganism
As we mentioned earlier, one of the main misconceptions about veganism is that it is somehow unhealthy and that this diet makes it difficult for athletes to grow muscles.
“The misconception is that we are deficient in necessary nutrients. I explain that every nutrient my body has ever needed can be found in a plant source,” said Seba.
This athlete’s favorite source of protein includes almonds, quinoa, and tempeh, while her favorite food to boost her calcium levels is kale. Seba also suggests eating plenty of lentils and spinach to maintain healthy levels of iron in your body.
“I am living proof that it can be done. Children can successfully be fed plant-based foods and grow into healthy strong vegan adults!”
When it comes to boosting her energy, Seba often eats raw dishes, fresh juices, organic kale, frozen blueberries, and bananas as well as maca or cacao powder. She also takes supplements at times, but not always.
“When I feel my body craves it, I buy vegan formula B12 and vegan calcium tablets derived from sea kelp,” said Seba.
Seba Johnson’s advice to people approaching veganism
With an amazing career to showcase, Seba is one of the best vegan athletes to ask anything about veganism. To those looking for ways to help improve animal welfare, she suggests volunteering in animal organizations or at your local shelter and speaking up whenever you see animals being hurt.
“Or simply go vegan today, don’t wait,” said Seba “Your life and countless others will be better off for it.”