Phoebe Champion has been an EcoAthlete since her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area.
ECO: Phoebe and her three sisters gained an appreciation for animals and the environment from a young age, became vegetarians during grammar school. “My sister Laurel did a school report on cruelty to animals, which motivated all of us to become vegetarian at an early age,” recalled Champion, “It’s been a non-negotiable part of who I am ever since; I’ve been 100 percent plant-based since college.”
ATHLETE: Champion, who swam before she could walk, gravitated to water polo and was hooked on water polo by age 12.
“It’s the perfect sport to me,” Champion declared. “Athletically, it is arguably the most demanding sport in the world. You need agility, speed, endurance, strength, strategy, awareness, and ‘teamsmanship’ — and there are so many different ways you can contribute and be effective.”
She excelled at every level, from her high school days in Palo Alto to Princeton, finally playing professionally for Padua in Serie A, the top league in Italy. Champion had to deal with some negative feedback from teammates and coaches about her plant-based lifestyle.
“Being a high-level vegan athlete was challenging, especially in the early days,” acknowledged Champion. “Some coaches and teammates were skeptical, to say the least. It became easier when people saw that my performance was not adversely affected and perhaps even improved. But I had the conversation about my dietary choices with different skeptics several times a week.”
Since retiring from professional water polo about ten years ago — she still plays Masters; the USA team won the World Championships in South Korea in 2019 — Champion has continued her trail blazing ways, building a varied and successful career in the international wine business, where female leadership is rare. Now, as General Manager of Akrathos, a startup winery near the Aegean Sea in Greece, she is leading a winery with sustainability at its core.
“We are organic, have on-site solar, we compost, and are pushing the region to expand its recycling program,” Champion noted. “Many of our vines are dry-farmed to limit our water use. When you plant indigenous varietals in the appropriate microclimate, they naturally adapt to the site and require fewer resources, like water, in order to flourish.”
Keen to combine her passions for sports and the environment, Champion is glad she won’t have to go it alone now that she’s joined the EcoAthletes community as its newest, well, Champion.
“Improved sustainability, including taking action on climate change, is a critical part of our future and athletes have a unique opportunity to lead by example in that conversation,” said Champion. “Having such strong opinions about environmental sustainability and animal welfare has felt alienating for much of my life. Being part of a broader community with a similar ethos helps provide a new meaning to, and application of a platform on which I previously often found myself standing alone.”
Champion can envision ways in which her experience with EcoAthletes can help her build Akrathos into a model for sustainable wine-making in Greece.
“Cultivating organic vineyards and making sustainable choices in business often means taking the more difficult road,” Champion related. “The more we can get people to choose the difficult road, the more worn and therefore easier it becomes. EcoAthletes can show others that choosing environmentally-responsible wines is easy and delicious and a way to help spark a #ClimateComeback.”
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Photo at top: Phoebe Champion with 100 year-old Xinomavro vines in Greece (Photo credit: Phoebe Champion)