Solid Gold

Vegan Olympian Morgan Mitchell on building inner-strength and peak performance

Morgan in Piestewa Peak Park in Arizona’s Phoenix Mountains Preserve

By Hannah Ewens
Photographed by Jaclyn Campanaro
Monday, February 1, 2021

“I’m not the cookie-cutter athlete — just look at my interviews, I swear enough,” laughs Morgan Mitchell. She really isn’t your average, whether in conversation with sports journalists or her daily life.

Mitchell grew up in Australia with two sisters and a busy working mum, who encouraged them into as many sports as they could manage around the school hours (“we were naughty girls, so our mum wanted us out of her hair.”) She soon grew too tall for gymnastics and consolidated a love for athletics. After a year off in 2013, she made every senior running team for 400 meters and 4 x 400m relay, hitting the 53-second mark for 400m, continually smashing her personal best and never losing a race in her domestic season. This qualified her for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and she ended up reaching the semi-finals.

At 19, she went vegan; although numbers of vegan athletes are more common now, it was seriously unusual in 2014. Her ex-boyfriend was a fitness junkie, quick to try any diet. One day, he asked if she wanted to try veganism, and something clicked. After his latest trend was tested, Mitchell realized she found it easy, so she got a vegan nutritionist, and they created a food plan for Rio: whole foods like peanut butter on rye toast, bananas, smoothies, dates and veggie burgers with rice. Mitchell’s never looked back.

“People in the industry crack jokes or question every single thing,” she says, with regards to her diet. “But I have to remain headstrong. It’s working for me, I do feel better, and I love animals.” She went undefeated in the women’s 400m race during the 2016 domestic season, winning all 12 races to take the national title, making her Australia’s best runner. The industry  started to take note. “Suddenly, people were going, ‘Oh maybe, [the veganism] is working.’”

Mitchell gives another sharp laugh and continues passionately, “Why would I want to put someone else’s life at risk for my own greed? Athletics only lasts ten years. I can be vegan now, and I can find a simple desk job afterward and still be vegan. There’s a way to come out of this industry and do the right thing — animals are living, and we’re running fast.”

Indeed, she’s got speed and endurance covered. In 2019, Mitchell made the bold decision to transition from being a 400m sprinter to becoming a middle/long-distance runner at 800 meters. She quickly reached her personal best of 2:00.06 (to put this in context, that’s about three times faster than a typical skilled runner), and in September she made the semi-finals at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar — only the second Australian in 47 years to do so.

“Animals are living, and we’re
running fast.”

Mitchell’s gone from strength to strength in her field but has kept hold of a sense of openness all the while. “I’m the most vulnerable when I’m just living, not on track,” says Mitchell. “I get anxious, nervous.” Her willingness to be open was clear when she came out as a domestic violence survivor last year. The abuse happened in 2012 before her year off from running. At the time, others looked to her ‘beast’-like performance on the track and glossed over how the abusive relationship had affected her. “People were like ‘come on, you’ve got to get over it, get back to school, back to training, you’ll be OK, you don’t care about anything,’” she recalls. “That’s what killed me for so long — I learned not to talk about my feelings, keep it all in, move on with it. That was eating me up for a while.” By 2018, Mitchell was at her lowest point, not running well, and had fallen out of love with the sport. She knew it was stemming from keeping the abuse a secret.

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