Olympic great Carl Lewis says that without sports and a vegan diet, 'I wouldn't be here right now'

Olympian Carl Lewis on mental well-being, fitness and being vegan. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Olympian Carl Lewis on mental well-being, fitness and being vegan. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

For much of the 1980s and '90s, the Summer Olympics were synonymous with Carl Lewis, the American track and field star whose awards bounty includes nine gold medals and one silver. Hailed as "Olympian of the Century" by Sports Illustrated — he's one of just three athletes to win an individual gold medal in four consecutive Olympic Games, and still holds the world record for the indoor long jump, set in 1984 — the 60-year-old has devoted his retirement from competition to supporting young athletes vying to follow in his formidable footsteps.

In addition to coaching track at his alma mater, the University of Houston, Lewis is helping to launch the Silk Team Protein Initiative, in which the plant-based beverage brand will give HBCU [historically Black colleges and universities] track and field programs $10,000 apiece to help fund expenses like travel and equipment; nominations are being accepted through July 22.

"It's a big difference because it allows them to travel around and open their world," Lewis says of the donations, which total $50,000.

Here, he opens up about being vegan, building self-confidence and the lessons he's learned throughout his own storied career in sports.

Why is supporting HBCU athletes so significant to you?

My parents met at Tuskegee Institute, an HBCU, and they both competed [in track and field] for the university... My mother was able to leave the country because of that. That affected us [kids] as growing up, we all had the chance [to travel]. We all left the country before we graduated from high school — that was kind of an edict in the family because my mother had that chance to travel.

And [the initiative is] just opening up opportunity for so many athletes and students around the country that did not have access at one point, and adding onto the access that they have now. For me, it's just been incredible what athletics has done for my life. It's opened up so many doors... I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for sports, because I wanted to improve my diet for athletics and to be the best athlete I could be, later in my career. That's why I got into the plant-based diet and plant-based products. I did it then and now in July I turned 60. It's almost hard to say the words because it's like, "How'd I get here so fast?" [Laughs] but the thing is, I'm still healthy in my diet. I still drink Silk soy milk; I do not drink regular milk to this day. My lifestyle is healthy because I started with the diet and sports, and I've kept that type of lifestyle all the way through to now.

So if it wasn't for sports and activities and then understanding my diet and going on a vegan and plant-based diet over 25 years ago, I wouldn't be here right now. They're all interconnected. And I think the great thing about these young student athletes that will benefit from this program... they go in and get involved with sports and many of them keep that lifestyle for the rest of their lives, and so it gives them a healthier life that they can live just like I feel like I am.

You've been a vegan for decades. Did you get any pushback in those early days?

Back in the '80s, it wasn't really pushed back; there was a lack of understanding. I really quickly figured that out through hearing people talk about it because I didn't just go [vegan] overnight. It was probably about a six-month plan, so I was able to talk about it to get information, and I met different doctors, different people, all these kind of things... It was an evolution. So by the time I did it, I had all these plans from talking to people that were vegetarians. Back then, you didn't have a lot of products in regular stores, so you had to go to health food stores. Well, the advantage is that when you go to a health food store, they know everything you need to know.

I think the best piece of advice was: Remember, you're the one that eats different, not them. So if I had to go to a restaurant or something, I would always suggest a steakhouse because steak houses have great salad bars, and I could always do that. Or if it was a dinner party, I would eat at home first in many cases, and then I'd take one dish — like a vegetarian lasagna or something — so that they could try that, and then I'd be able to nibble around the other foods.

That was the best advice, saying: Look, it's not your job to go there and show them what they're supposed to eat. Understand that you're the one that's different and then introduce them to things that they may like. And it ended up that if I was inviting people over for dinner, they'd say, "Are you going to have that lasagna?" All of a sudden they're telling me, "I went on a vegetarian diet." So it was a lot of fun, it was interesting — and then a lot of friends ended up changing their diet over time. It was definitely something that's beneficial. I still benefit to this day.

Lewis at the 1996 Summer Olympics. (Photo: JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Lewis at the 1996 Summer Olympics. (Photo: JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)

What's been important in terms of your own mental health over the years?

Being a world-class athlete when I was, you're under a tremendous amount of stress. But for me, I was raised by parents [who gave me] a great, wonderful upbringing. They were teachers and I went to the schools where they taught and when I ran for the track club, they coached. So I had a lot of support. I always felt like my parents did a tremendous job of not babying us at all, but also being there. Like, I remember at track meets I'd go and I'd run and be like, "Dang, they didn't see me," because I didn't see them at all. And then [my mom] would say, "Well, you didn't really run hard at the end. Blah, blah, blah." They actually were over there attending to something, but they stopped for that minute to make sure they didn't miss what I did. So that was the kind of upbringing I had. And so I respected that and other people's time and energy.

Is there anything that you wish you could tell young Carl, looking back now?

I have a son and grandson, and I coach 18- to 23-year-olds, and I tell them all the time: I technically was professional at 19, and so my entire adult life has been professional, but I look back now and I was still 19. Even though I was out earning a living, doing my thing on my own, I was still in my teens. So the biggest thing I tell young people is: Acquiring knowledge shouldn't make you feel like you're not smart. Whether you like it or not, the best part of getting smarter is aging. You can read everything in the books, but you've got to age. And so I try to tell them, the folks around here are trying to teach you what you can put in your — I always say — gumbo. You know, you start with the roux and your education is the roux, but all the seasonings and everything else, it all goes into the gumbo of life. That's what I try to motivate them to see. It's OK to want to learn more, and you don't always have to win and know everything.

Do you have any self-care rituals that brighten your day or help you center yourself?

I was in kindergarten and my [birth] name is Frederick Carlton Lewis. So the teacher said, "Frederick Lewis." And I said,"Hello." And she said "Freddy," and I'm like, "Eeeurgh!" I did not like Freddy. So I ended up going with Carl. Cut Carlton off, and I went with Carl Lewis, and that was my name all the way through [school]. Then when I got into college and everything, of course, Frederick Carlton Lewis was my name... I kind of shortened that to see Frederick C. Lewis.

That whole story was just to set up the fact that every day when I'm looking in the mirror, it's almost like Carl Lewis is the public persona and Frederick Lewis is the business persona. Fred likes to spend the money, and Carl has to make it [laughs]. I always tell the kids, "Go in that mirror sometime and talk to that person and tell him what you want to do." So that's what I do.

But I think the biggest thing is self-confidence, and that confidence doesn't come from you just building it, it comes from the people that you surround yourself with to support you — the people that you can get information from, that you can fall back on. Then you take that information and put it in your own life gumbo, and it helps support you.

And it was the same thing with sports: I didn't go into a Saturday saying, "I hope I win." I went in saying, "I'm as prepared as possible, and I expect the best possible result." So what we want is to tell all these young people to prepare yourself to have the best possible results, and you do that by working hard, and having a really solid diet, because that's important... So prepare yourself as much as possible, and the confidence is there. And it's no different than if you want to do well on a test. You study for it; you don't go in and hope you do [well]. So that's my ritual, is just trying to surround myself with the situation and the people that can help me be the best that I can be. Take the information, decipher that and then go out with as much confidence as I can build. I really encourage everyone to go out and go to silting protein.com and go out and nominate your school.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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