Vegetarian Action

Vegetarianism and Tennis:  A Natural Partnership

An Interview with Peter Burwash by Heather Gorn

Many will scoff at the idea of a vegetarian athlete, believing that a serious competitor must wolf down steaks and swallow eggs by the carton-full. Tell that to Peter Burwash, tennis icon and perhaps one of the most well-known advocates of vegetarianism of our time.

Once upon another lifetime, Peter played hockey, a sport in which team dinners are held around the grill. Peter had been drafted by the St. Louis Blues, the top professional hockey team in 1965, when he suffered a hockey-related injury and resigned from the National Hockey League. He pursued a career in tennis, the first four years of which he still ate meat.

While on vacation in Waikiki, Peter accidentally struck a man in the head with his Frisbee. As fate would have it, the man was a doctor who was attending a forum on the nutritional hazards of eating meat. He piqued Peter's interest enough that Peter agreed to attend the forum, which was to take place in three days. Cut to three days later, and Peter was a full-fledged vegetarian.

Immediately after becoming a vegetarian those 35 years ago, Peter noticed differences in his quality of life. One of the first things he observed was his increased energy level, which naturally transferred over to the tennis court. Competitors called him "The Flying Canadian" because he occasionally hurled himself full-throttle to hit a ball and then immediately bounced back for the next hit. Despite being harangued on every front, Peter continued to believe in the merits of a vegetarian diet, and continued to see results.

Soon, his personal observations were scientifically confirmed. Peter attended the Lloyd Percival's Fitness Center in Toronto, where they tested the fitness of Canada's top athletes. During the years that Peter ate meat, he placed among the top 56 fittest Canadian athletes. After just one year as a vegetarian, Peter had the highest fitness index of any athlete in the country, and he maintained that title for every subsequent year that he was tested. For the remaining three years that Peter played on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) circuit, he was a vegetarian, and he was ranked among the top 65 in the world.

Since then, Peter has written 10 books that promote vegetarianism in various capacities, including Peter Burwash's Vegetarian Primer, Tennis For Life, and The Key To Great Leadership. He believes that writing is the most potent instrument of influence. Peter recalls personal testimonies about how his books have changed people's lives: "I was in the mail station in Waikiki, and a man saw my name on the return letter. He came up and gave me a hug and said, 'I had angina, I couldn't walk up the stairs because my heart hurt me. My whole family read your book, and we became vegetarian. You saved my life.'"

Peter is also a frequent lecturer. Sometimes, he speaks about the topics covered in his books, which enables him to speak about vegetarianism. On other occasions, he is hired to speak specifically about vegetarianism. Over his 35 years of speaking on vegetarianism, Peter has learned how to approach the audience: "If it's a male audience, I'll focus on health benefits, whereas women will identify very quickly with the moral issues. Teenagers will tend to hook into the ecological perspective quickly because they have seen what their parents and grandparents have done to the environment; they're very clued into the symbiotic relationship between trees and people."

Peter believes vegetarianism is the foundation of one's life: "If you're going to build a 40-story building, vegetarianism is the ground floor. It teaches you to be less selfish, it teaches you respect for life, it teaches you discipline, it teaches you a sense of humility.... You will notice that someone who truly understands vegetarianism will have a sense of humility about them because they will have respect for all life."

Heather Gorn is a VRG volunteer. She is presently an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.