Michaela Copenhaver: Rower

Michaela Copenhaver: Rower

Michaela Copenhaver: Rower

by Nicole Rivard

This summer, vegan rower and Olympic hopeful Michaela Copenhaver came away with two national titles at the U.S. Rowing Elite National Championships, one in the Lightweight Women’s Quad and one in the Lightweight Women’s Double.

As excited as she was, it was actually the quad’s second place finish at the World Championship Trials in June that really thrilled her.

“We posted a blazing fast time of 6:29:47, less than 14 seconds off the world record. Mostly I’m focusing on getting faster,” said Copenhaver, who trains at GMS Rowing Center in New Milford, Conn.

That her speed is fueled by a plant-based diet is just fine by her coach, Guenter Beutter. “He’s like, ‘You are still getting faster, so eat what makes you feel good,’” Copenhaver said.

But her former coach had the ever-present protein concern, which was one of the reasons she left California and came to the east coast to train.

“My other coach believed if you are only eating plants, you aren’t getting enough protein,” Copenhaver said. “He was trying to have me consume 120 or 130 grams of protein every day. But he didn’t have a medical or nutrition background, and I am one of those skeptical people. If you want me to get 130 grams of protein, where are you getting that information from? Who is the study being done on—weightlifters or people who are in my shoes trying to be a high-performance Olympic lightweight female?”

Since becoming vegan in 2012, Copenhaver says she finds it easier to maintain her weight without sacrificing the amount she can eat.

“I row lightweight so we have maximum weights and the athletes have to be under 59 kilos on race day, which is about 130 pounds—which means I have to stay pretty thin,” Copenhaver said. “Being vegan I still get to eat a lot. The sheer volume that I eat compared to other lightweight rowers is fabulous,” she adds with a laugh.

In addition, Copenhaver doesn’t get sick anymore. “I think just simply eating more fruits and vegetables has helped a lot. Even when other people in my house get sick, I am much more resilient,” Copenhaver said.

The book, On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee is what peaked Copenhaver’s interested in a plant-based diet in 2011. In the book, the author discusses the chemical prop-erties of onions and how they fight cancerous cells.

“It was one of those a-ha moments, what I eat actually does affect my body’s performance,” recalled Copen-haver. “From a chemical perspective I began to understand how vegetables are going into my body and doing good things. So then I concluded I should probably eat more vegetables.”

A couple months later one of her teammates asked her what she was giving up for Lent. Though not really a religious person, Copenhaver thought it sounded like a good thing. She didn’t want to give up cookies, so she decided to give up meat because she thought it would force her to eat more vegetables.

“I was a big meat eater before that. I thought it was going to be terrible and it wasn’t. So I never began eating meat again,” Copenhaver said.

The more books and blogs she read (she started her own blog, www.lightweighteats.com) the more she discovered about veganism and the ethical and health issues behind it, and it very quickly became apparent that was the next step she had to take.

“I was travelling for a race and didn’t have any way to keep anything refrigerated. Most animal products require refrigeration so I just stopped eating all animal products for a week and again it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Copenhaver said.

“I think there is this sense of I can’t change because I have been eating meat forever,” she said. “It’s ok to make the transition slowly. I think that’s a big misconception that it is all or nothing.

The main thing Copenhaver struggled with the first few months was getting enough calories. During a typical week she generally is involved in 14 to 16 hours of training with her heart rate elevated. She was burning 3,500-plus calories a day and kale salads just weren’t cutting it. She recalls eating a jar of peanut butter a week those first few months.

But then she bought some cook-books and kitchen gadgets and built her recipe repertoire.

“I’ve found a lot of things that are delicious like tempeh and so many different ways to prepare tofu and beans that I didn’t know existed,” Copenhaver said. “And just so many fabulous recipes and cuisines. I think I was really fortunate I became vegan at the same time I was learning to cook for myself”.


Oatmeal or cold cereal such as bran flakes with soy milk, topped with fresh or dried fruit or nuts, with either black coffee or tea.