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Vegan Athlete Maria Vlasak

Hometown: Montvale, NJ

Current Residence: Stamford, CT

Sport: Duathlon/Cycling

Pro/Elite since: 1996

Date of Birth: 1/14/66

Favorite fruit: mango!

Favorite veggie: sweet potato/spinach

Hobbies/Other sports: reading, kayaking, hiking

1.When and why did you choose to stop eating animal products?

I became a vegan in 1994 when I changed jobs. I had been looking for a healthier way to eat (commuting into the city and eating pizza every day for lunch wasn't working for me). My new boss was vegetarian and she was a great resource for questions/recipes, etc. I felt better almost immediately. Cutting out dairy products was what really made the difference for me, though. I used to think I had recurrent sinus infections; now I know I just can't process dairy!

2.What has been your experience as a vegan athlete? Have you noticed any performance or health benefits or problems?

The only problem I've ever had with a vegan diet is getting good food (especially protein) when I travel to races. I remember eating white asparagus and canned beans for almost a week in northern Spain, and a loaf of flax seed bread for breakfast and lunch every day in Ireland. Long car trips to and from races can be challenging when all your other teammates want to stop at McDonald's. You just have to be prepared. It's much easier, now, though, than it was 10 years ago: healthy choices are becoming more and more available every day. I swear, those bags of baby carrots have saved my life many times.

3.Have teammates and other athletes been supportive or critical?

Being a vegan has been pretty easy for me. I had a lot of support from friends and family when I began to eliminate animal products from my diet, so I never felt like a freak. And the athletes I raced against couldn't give me a hard time because they could never beat me. Sometimes my teammates get annoyed because they want to relax after a race with some wine or beer, and I don't drink alcohol, either. They think I'm kind of square. But that's another story.

4.A brief history of your athletic career.

My friend John asked me to train for the New York Marathon with him in 1995. I stupidly agreed having previously maxed out at 3 miles. But I had a great time putting in the miles and learning about the sport. Toward the end of our training, John (a former collegiate cyclist) suggested that we add some cross-training on our bikes, which would've been a great idea, if I'd actually owned a bike. But he persisted, and I finally bought myself a bike for my birthday; and immediately fell in love. I'm a moderately good runner (and I have to really fight for that), but riding has always felt very natural to me. Somehow my body understands it. So, after the marathon I turned to duathlon, which combines both sports, and within a year I was on the national team. Recently, I've added bike races, adventure races, long-distance running relays, and cross-country ski races to my schedule. I'm not nearly as successful in any of my new pursuits, but I'm having a lot more fun!

5.Most memorable results or achievements (top 5).

* 3-time Team USA member; twice ranked #2 in the country in duathlon (cycling and running)
* Bronze medalist at the International Triathlon Union's World Championship Duathlon in Ferrara, Italy
* Sub-3:30 New York Marathon
* 1st place, Tour de Greenwich (which is a meaningless little bike race here in town, but for local bragging rights, it can't be beat!)
* 1st place, Winding Trails Cross-Country Ski Race (another meaningless local race, but it was my first ski race, and I was really psyched to win!) 

Recent results:

2008 Bear Mountain Road Race: 5th

2008 UnionVale Road Race: 2nd

2008 Housatonic Hills CT State Road Race Championship: 3rd

2009 Rockefeller State Park 10K Championship: 1st

6.Why did you join OA's PRO-Activist team?

I saw a bunch of guys riding in the Go Vegan! shorts and I had to have a pair! So, I checked out the OA web site and when I saw there was an online community of vegan athletes, I wanted to be a part of it. Most of my elite athletic career is behind me now, but I coach a lot of new riders and runners, and I try to encourage them to eat responsibly. OA is a great resource that makes us all feel like we're not fighting the good fight alone.