IN 1987, SI BESTOWED ITS HIGHEST HONOR ON A GROUP OF SPORTS FIGURES DEDICATED TO HELPING OTHERS. A QUARTER CENTURY LATER, ATHLETES ARE CHANNELING THE SAME PASSION AND COMMITMENT TO EVER BROADER ISSUES, ON AN EVER WIDENING SCALE
This is an article from the Dec. 10, 2012 issue
Twenty-five years ago this month, as SI readers returned from the last of their holiday-shopping stations, a surprising issue of this magazine went thump on millions of coffee tables. Our editors had decided to make a statement in their choice of Sportsman of the Year. As a corrective to an era increasingly marked by greed and narcissism, we honored eight male and female Athletes Who Care to recognize, as senior writer Frank Deford put it in his introduction, "the whole athlete, not simply that fabulously facile part that scores goals and wins games."
Each of the men and women in that 1987 package was dedicated to a project that helped young people—from hurdler Judi Brown King, who worked with abused children; to golfer Patty Sheehan, who founded and funded a group home for troubled teenage girls; to Olympic distance runner Kip Keino, who, with his wife, Phyllis, had turned their home in Kenya into an orphanage for 35 kids. Such compassion for the next generation conformed to the iconic scene of the pilgrim-athlete at a child's hospital bed. But when we decided to assemble a new crop of exemplary athletes to mark this anniversary, we quickly discovered that the species had evolved. Thus our updated Athletes Who Care includes more worldly and socially activist honorees, who have embraced such causes as nutrition and health, the status of gays and lesbians, and the fight against climate change, in addition to the welfare of children.
In 1987, when we asked Braves outfielder Dale Murphy why he almost never turned down charitable requests, he cited the example of his mother, who had spent every school day as a volunteer with handicapped kids. "When I asked her why she did it, she replied, 'It's important,'" Murphy said. "Nothing more needed to be said. She could help someone, so she did. I was always taught that a 'meaningful life' is just that. Society is what we make of it, so we'd better try to make it the best we can."
The motivation of some athletes to help their fellow human beings stands timelessly the same. Nothing more needed to be said then or now, or surely 25 years from now.
See if their stories don't lead you to agree.
THE WISDOM OF THE WORLD
To care requires one first to be aware, and Fitzgerald is forever taking in things besides the footballs thrown his way. Every off-season the Cardinals' wide receiver makes a point to see the world. Artifacts on the walls and shelves of his Paradise Valley, Ariz., home document those stopovers: a Berber dagger from Morocco; a replica terra cotta soldier from China; a vase from Jordan; a tile from the sacking of Constantinople. Scrapbooks on his coffee table bulge with his own photographs of landmarks and adventures. A photo he shot in Africa with a 400-mm lens shows a leopard in a tree finishing off a gazelle. Here is Mandela's cell on Robben Island; there, McCain's in the Hanoi Hilton. The man most people know for his six Pro Bowl appearances sandboards in the United Arab Emirates, surveys the Zambezi River from an ultralight and rides an elephant in Cambodia.
Because Fitzgerald, 29, makes sure to fold charity work into his travels, he's sometimes treated to moments of almost transcendent understanding, like the one in Rwanda two years ago, during a mission for the Starkey Hearing Foundation. As Fitzgerald fit the left ears of children with hearing aids, the daughter of Pasteur Bizimungu, the country's first postgenocide president, fit the right ears. As the two worked, she recounted stories from that dark chapter of Rwanda's past. "She was my age," Fitzgerald says. "And to get her view on how her father was able to bind the country back together—it wasn't hearsay or a BBC or Western documentary on the subject."
Since he first traveled overseas on a USO Tour during the summer of 2004, Fitzgerald has made four more trips to see the troops. Earlier this year, with the international relief organization Oxfam, he and Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin (his former Cardinals teammate) visited Ethiopia to plant trees and help build an irrigation project in drought-plagued villages. Stateside, Fitzgerald is devoted to organizations that fight breast cancer, which took the life of his mother, Carol, in 2003. Through his First Down Fund he recently donated Kindle Fires to a school on a Native American reservation in Arizona, and for the past two seasons he has invited fans to nominate the charity to which he'll write a $1,000 check each week of the season. "If they take the time to write, I know they're passionate about the cause," he says. "So I'll donate in their name."
The world map in his bedroom, festooned with pins to indicate where he has been, still has a few bare patches. So he has itineraries planned for Patagonia and Antarctica, as well as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. But he's also booked with Starkey for missions to South Sudan, Darfur and the Congo. "It gives you perspective," he says. "If you get consumed by fame and fortune, your world can be a very small bubble. We have a lot of issues here, but they pale compared to around the world. Yet even in the poorest places I've been, people's happiness isn't dictated by their bank account."
Arizona drafted Fitzgerald two days after its former defensive back, Army Ranger Pat Tillman, was killed in Afghanistan, almost as if the team had a torch that needed to be picked up. "God didn't put me on earth to amuse the masses but to do more," Fitzgerald says. "To me it's like the story of the man who found a thousand starfish washed up on the shore one day. He threw one back, and someone said, 'Yo! There must be a thousand starfish there! You can't save 'em all!' And he said, 'Yeah, but I can save the ones I can.'"
TO TRI IS TO SERVE
Wellington went in reverse. Rather than gaining a public platform via sports, it was the philanthropic work Wellington was already doing that led to her career as a pro athlete. In 2002 and '03, she worked for Britain's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where her duties included contributing to the official UK policy for the postconflict reconstruction of Iraq. By 2004, however, Wellington yearned for a more tangible impact, so she moved to Nepal to start a sanitation project in an area ravaged by civil war. Wellington's belief in community-driven initiatives led her to unglamorous duties. In villages where she worked, relieving oneself outside was customary, so Wellington asked children and village leaders to calculate how much waste they produce and understand how it would affect the local water supply. The result, Wellington says, "was that they realize there's a need for toilets and take ownership of the project and invest their own time and resources in producing that infrastructure."
To keep fit, Wellington, then a recreational runner and swimmer, took up cycling, and she soon found that she could keep pace even at high altitude with native Nepali Sherpas who guide climbers up Mount Everest. After returning to Britain in 2006, Wellington turned pro as a triathlete. The rest is endurance sports history: She entered the '07 Ironman triathlon world championship as an unknown and demolished the competition. Today she is 13--0 lifetime in Ironmans and a four-time world champ.
But charity is still central to her life. Wellington maintains involvement with Girls Education Nepal, a scholarship program, and organizes Runs With Chrissie to raise funds for The Jane Tomlinson Appeal, an organization that donates to cancer charities and that was founded by the late Tomlinson, who took up endurance sports upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer. And in 2008, Wellington was approached for advice by Tanya Maslach, founder of GOTRIbal, which creates worldwide social networks of women who participate in endurance activities. Instead of advice, Wellington became a (pro bono) spokeswoman and centerpiece of special events.
When she competes, Wellington drops to the ground and log rolls across the finish in memory of Jon Blais, who vowed to complete a 2005 Ironman after an ALS diagnosis even if, he said, "I have to be rolled across the finish line." Says Wellington, "It's not just about honoring [Blais], it's about raising awareness for the Blazeman Foundation," which donates money to ALS research.
Even during her races, a cause is front and center.
FOR A HEALTHY HOMELAND
He's the striker on the Ivory Coast's soccer team, nicknamed Les Éléphants, and there's this thing about elephants: "We never forget," says Drogba, who for five years has passed along every penny of his millions in endorsement income to his eponymous foundation, which supports health and education in his homeland by funding outfits ranging from orphanages to the Red Cross. "That's part of our national culture, to always give back."
For nearly all of Drogba's years as an elite footballer, the Ivory Coast has been plagued by civil strife that has made needs back home particularly acute. But in 2009 his philanthropy took on a new sense of purpose. Before a World Cup qualifier against Malawi, a wall outside the stadium in Abidjan collapsed from a crush of fans, killing 22 and injuring 133. Drogba, who spent much of his childhood in France, was accustomed to European standards of health care; when he visited hospitalized survivors in Abidjan, he was shocked by the conditions. Then a more personal experience redoubled his despair. A cousin, Stephan Zebe, was diagnosed with leukemia, and Drogba spent months trying to procure a visa so that Stephan could be treated in France. "The day after Stephan got his visa, he died," says Drogba, 34, who now plays his club ball in China. "For me it was a big lesson."
Drogba devised a plan, still years from completion, to deliver good, affordable care through five clinics around the country. By placing facilities in both the mostly Christian, government-aligned south and the mostly Muslim, rebel-affiliated north, he will be true to his identity as a tribune of national unity, a humanitarian who transcends political factions. "It will help prove to people that we're moving forward," says Drogba, who also serves on his country's postconflict truth and reconciliation commission.
The $4.8 million from his contract with Pepsi jump-started the health clinic project, while endorsement income from Nike, Samsung and Orange telecom, as well as money from Drogba's autobiography and DVD sales, have also gone into the foundation's coffers. Drogba's foundation will break ground on the first clinic, in Abidjan, in March. "After that, we want to wait a year or two to see if we're doing everything right," he says. "To learn, and then begin to build the other ones."
Drogba could easily follow the path of another soccer star with a social mission, former Liberian great George Weah, and run for office. But he recognizes that the standing he enjoys would only be diminished by politics. "My philosophy is to try to use the power of football to unite people," he says. "It's what I do for a living. I'm lucky to have this chance to help others who need it."
NOURISHMENT IN THE DOMESTIC DESERT
The irony didn't escape Hill: Here he was, the Duke-educated son of two high-powered professionals, an NBA All-Star whose career depended on what he put in his body, and he had no grasp of the fundamentals of nutrition. "My first year in the league it was literally fast food every day," he says. Then career-threatening foot injuries led him to food-sensitivity testing and such vigilant attention to diet that, at 36, he didn't miss a game, thanks in part to a regimen heavy on almonds, whole grains and goji berries.
As he plays out his career, Hill, now a 40-year-old forward with the Clippers, has committed himself to combating misinformation about nutrition and has enlisted in the crusade against inner-city "food deserts," where not enough stores stock fresh produce, and where obesity and diabetes rates are perilously high. "The opportunity is there for grocery chains to do some good and make some money," he says. "For corporations to help educate. A lot of kids have never tasted a real tomato. We need to offer them safe, healthy options."
To counter the deep-fried, fast-food diet endemic to urban America, Hill has made a point of including three Washington, D.C., Subway franchises in his real-estate portfolio. He has hooked up with The California Endowment, which is addressing nutrition in 15 of the state's urban communities. And he has cultivated relationships with all levels of the movement for healthy diets. At the grass roots, Hill cites Growing Power, former ABA player Will Allen's inner-city composting operation in Milwaukee, as a model for urban farming—one means of bringing fresh produce to food deserts. And Hill has served on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and made appearances for Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity initiative. "When an athlete comes in and talks about his experience, it's more powerful," Hill says. "If [former Washington Bullets] Elvin Hayes or Jeff Ruland had come to my [northern Virginia] grade school and told me anything, I'd have done it."
Hill recognizes the irony: As sound nutrition has extended his career, it has postponed his ability to throw himself even deeper into a cause he calls "near and dear to my heart." But because he understands at such a personal level the value of eating well, retirement figures to turbocharge his efforts to address the problem. He envisions a critical role, for example, for African-American churches. "It's a rite of Sunday that once worship is over you go home and eat, and not always the healthiest thing," he says. "So we'd talk to pastors.
"Foundations and [assistance] networks have spent millions researching their communities, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel. It's a matter of bringing resources together, of getting in front of the necessary people and being an advocate. It should be like the seat-belt campaign, only for a healthy lifestyle."
HEARING AND HEALING KIDS
To win over a room of young people, Catchings might do what she did with students at Ball State several years ago. "How many of you have ever worn a hearing aid?" she asked. A stray hand went up. "And worn braces?" More went up. "And glasses?" Many more went up. By the time she got to "And how many of you have ever been bullied?" practically the entire room was reaching skyward.
Catchings herself can tick each of those boxes. She can also say that she went from these four kinds of imperfect as an adolescent to starting at forward for the undefeated 1998 NCAA title team at Tennessee, winning three Olympic gold medals and, in October, earning Finals MVP honors while leading the Indiana Fever to its first WNBA title. She knows her journey confers credibility on everything she says.
And cred is critical. "I'm telling them what I had to go through to get where I am," says the 6'1" Catchings, a seven-time WNBA All-Star. "Not, 'I'm a professional athlete and better than you.'" Whether you call it mentoring or role-modeling, Catchings, 33, is a passionate believer in the power of the intervening elder. Today it works for kids who go through the programs she launched during the first of her now 11 seasons in Indianapolis, just as, once upon a time, it worked for her.
Diagnosed at two with profound hearing loss, Catchings needed hearing aids in both ears to pick up voices. It didn't matter that her dad was former NBA center Harvey Catchings; in grade school peer pressure and comments from classmates got to her, and one day in frustration she chucked the devices into a field. By the time she entered Tennessee, she had largely compensated for her disability. But Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt staged an intervention, and Catchings agreed to try a next-generation hearing aid—this time, a tiny, barely noticeable apparatus.
After she joined the Fever, Catchings asked the team to send her out for as many public appearances as possible. During one of her first, at Indy's Riverside Family Center, a staffer asked if she had ever directed a basketball camp. Now she runs one over Christmas break, as well as a pre-Thanksgiving fitness clinic that any kid can attend by supplying 10 canned goods for a local food shelf. Meanwhile, her Catch the Stars Foundation offers middle schoolers a choice of two six-week mentoring programs: STARS (Sisters Teaching and Reaching Sisters), which empowers girls by cultivating self-confidence and acceptance of who they are; and CHAMPS (Changing Habits and Making People Successful), which recognizes that it takes special effort to get boys to open up about their feelings. Each folds in fitness and literacy, and offers one college-bound senior a $2,500 scholarship, renewable over four years. "It's really to help kids hone in on the question, What are you good at?" she says. "To open their eyes that it's not just about becoming a professional athlete."
Tonisha Sanders was one of Catch the Stars' holiday campers a dozen years ago. "She had a hearing problem and was really soft-spoken," Catchings recalls. "Now she's in college [at Saint Joseph's in Indiana], plays basketball and has a boyfriend."
If watching Tonisha has been a kind of out-of-body experience for Tamika, she's grateful for the way it has enabled her to take stock of her own journey. "I don't see being hearing impaired as a disability," Catchings says. "I see it as a challenge."
CONNECTING COMPETITORS AND CLASSROOMS
Long before he won a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, bobsled pusher Steve Mesler knew the Olympic Charter. He took to heart the clause that describes the goal of the Games as "building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport." The words resonated in part because, growing up in Buffalo, Mesler had watched Dan O'Brien win gold in the decathlon in 1996 and vowed to follow the Olympic path.
But when Mesler began competing and asked U.S. Olympic officials how he might connect with kids, he was baffled to learn that no formal program existed. So Mesler launched an initiative of his own. In 2009, with his sister, Leigh Parise, who has a Ph.D. in education policy, he developed Classroom Champions, a program that uses digital technology to send athletes on virtual visits to needy schools, where they can fire the dreams of children while raising the digital literacy of students and teachers. "Before, I'd go into schools, give a talk and never be back," the 34-year-old Mesler says. "Every athlete says that if only one or two kids listen during one of those visits, it's worth his time. Well, we can do better—and with less effort."
The program matches athletes such as figure skater Ashley Wagner, hurdler David Oliver and basketball player Sue Bird with classrooms. Once a month during the school year the athlete makes a video on themes such as how to set and reach goals. The classroom responds with a video of its own, and the bond is further strengthened through Skype chats and blog posts. Mesler was moved when one student reminded him to wear his protective vest and fasten his seatbelt for a competition. "I was actually getting something back from a real, engaged relationship," he says. "The kids were learning empathy."
Mesler sees evidence of a narrowing digital divide between the developed and developing worlds, and he imagines a global network in which kids in Nairobi and New Haven might talk to one another in the name of the Olympic ideal. "This program wouldn't have been possible five years ago," he says, "and five years from now I'm sure we'll be communicating in totally different ways."
What Mesler calls "the new social Olympian" is well-adapted to the primary way kids interact today. "Athletes are feedback-mongers," he says, "and giving back is essentially a feedback mechanism. We all have 90 seconds to open up our laptop or phone, to make a video and make an impact. And possibly be that next hero in a community that needs us the most."
Kelly Brush Davisson
WILLING AND ABLE
You only had to check the clock. If it was any waking hour, Kelly Brush would be out doing something sporty—golf or tennis, soccer or lacrosse, surfing or skiing. But in February 2006 the clock temporarily stopped. As a Middlebury College sophomore carving down a giant slalom course, she caught an edge, pinwheeled off the trail and struck a lift tower. The blow bruised Kelly's spinal cord and fractured a vertebra in her neck and four ribs. After surgery and almost three months of rehab, she ended up in a wheelchair, paralyzed below the waist.
When Brush returned to school the following fall, the ski team held a charity bike ride to raise $10,000 for an adaptive mono-ski for her. The event exceeded its goal by $55,000, and Brush realized that such efforts could help launch the charitable organization she had vowed to establish during her rehab. "All these people—my boyfriend, teammates, friends—were still out there skiing," she says. "How could I not do something to try to keep it safe and make something good come out of my injury? I really just wanted to protect my friends."
The Kelly Brush Foundation Century Ride has been staged every fall since, with cyclists wending their way over the roads of Vermont's Champlain Valley, raising more than $1 million in six years. In addition to funding restraining nets along race courses and safety-awareness campaigns at ski areas, the proceeds subsidize the purchase of adaptive sporting equipment for disabled athletes such as Chris Jefferson, a former Army paratrooper who hopes to represent the U.S. as a skier at the 2014 Paralympics, and Maria Rinaldi, a quadriplegic who longed for a bowling chair so she could resume the activity she loved.
Today Kelly, 26, lives with her husband, Zeke Davisson, in Boston, where she's studying to be a nurse practitioner. Thanks to adaptive equipment, she can ski, play tennis and golf, and cycle—in 2011 she won the women's handcycle division of the Boston Marathon. And every fall she's at the head of the Century Ride's peloton. "Being an athlete has been such a part of my identity, and I'd thought it had been taken away from me," she says. "Then I realized all these things I could still do." Now her efforts are helping many more people realize what they, too, can do.
PITCHING IN WHEREVER HE SEES A NEED
When Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw got married in 2010, his bride, Ellen, brought to the union an emotional dowry: a deep connection to a girl she had met on a Christian mission to Zambia. The child, Hope, lost both parents to AIDS and was HIV-positive herself, and struggling because poor nutrition interfered with the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs.
The Kershaws haven't simply supported Hope with money. Working with the faith-based organization Arise Africa, Clayton and Ellen's foundation, Kershaw's Challenge, has built an orphanage for Hope and other children in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. On New Year's Eve the Kershaws will fly to Lusaka to inspect what they informally call Hope's Home, which opens this month. "Right now seven [orphans] have been approved, and we'll probably add from there as the orphanage gets more functional and self-sustaining," Kershaw says.
Trips to Africa have led Kershaw to count his blessings—including the 2011 NL Cy Young award and a contract worth $7.5 million this year and $11 million in 2013. "It's tough to see the poverty and living conditions," he says. "But the positive side is how joyful these people are if they have food, water and shelter. I want to give that to others—the basic needs that we take for granted."
Kershaw donates $100 to the Challenge for each of his strikeouts, and asks fans to contribute as well. The charity also supports L.A.'s Peacock Foundation, which provides mental health services to at-risk teens; the Mercy Street youth ministry in Clayton and Ellen's hometown of Dallas; and an evangelical movement called I Am Second. Thanks to such efforts, in October, Kershaw received the 2012 Roberto Clemente Award, baseball's top humanitarian honor. The typical winner has been in his mid-30s; Kershaw is 24. "I've been fortunate to be able to start playing baseball at the big league level at an early age," he said after accepting the award. "With that comes a great platform to do stuff off the field."
Clayton and Ellen have learned much along the way. After discovering Lusaka's steep municipal water rates, they decided to build the orphanage its own well. "A year ago we sat on land and looked at blueprints," says Ellen. "This year there'll be kids calling this place their home. It's going to get us really excited to start our next project."
That might be in the Dominican Republic. "I have so many connections [there] with my teammates," Clayton says. "I want to see how we can help." And he and Ellen have already begun discussing ways to help their Zambian children once they're grown up and ready to leave the orphanage—to make sure there's a place for them to learn a trade or the basics of microfinance.
But Hope, now 12, will have Hope's Home for another half-dozen years. "She's doing great now," he says. "She's such a happy kid when she's healthy."
The Ravens' veteran linebacker is an avowedly straight father of two. Yet ever since Ayanbadejo wrote a column for The Huffington Post headlined SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? three years ago, he has been a happy warrior on the front lines of the latest civil rights struggle. For airing his opinion, he was targeted with gay slurs on message boards and crude comments in the locker room. And after he threw his support behind a 2012 ballot initiative to establish gay marriage in Maryland, for which he filmed a video and lobbied at the statehouse, a state legislator urged team owner Steve Bisciotti to shut his linebacker up.
But Ayanbadejo, 36, also heard from members of the gay community and other supporters in the incident's aftermath. One letter, from a Presbyterian minister, wished that more clergy shared Ayanbadejo's understanding of love. Another, from a local mom, recounted how having a Raven speak out in support of gay rights had eased her gay son's way at school. "Really, [the legislator's attack] made my voice a lot louder," Ayanbadejo says. "It made me want to work even harder and longer until this thing gets passed in every state."
The son of a Nigerian father and an Irish-American mother, Ayanbadejo spent several formative years as a biracial kid amid a tapestry of gays, lesbians and sympathizers after his stepfather took a job at UC Santa Cruz as resident director of an LGBT-supportive dorm. Thus he has a fairly high standard for brotherhood, and tolerance doesn't quite cut it: "You tolerate when somebody is smoking a cigarette around you. For me, acceptance is the big word. I preach acceptance."
The Baltimore locker room isn't quite there yet. When three fundamentalist teammates staged what Ayanbadejo calls "an intervention," he whipped out the letter from the minister. When teammates use an expression like "that's so gay," he'll get in their faces so reliably that many now reflexively add, "Sorry, B.A.!" And some Ravens tease him over his high-profile role, calling him the Gay Ambassador. "I know I'm on the right side of history," he says. "We'll look back in 20 or 30 years like we look back on slavery or [the lack of women's] suffrage, things we've done throughout history that are completely wrong and weren't considered wrong."
Last month the Ravens defeated Oakland just after the Maryland initiative passed. During the game, Ayanbadejo says, several Raiders encouraged him with comments like "Good job" and "Keep it up." The 49ers have filmed an It Gets Better video to help reassure gay teenagers, and Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, Texans linebacker Connor Barwin and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita are among those who have joined Ayanbadejo as champions of gay rights. "The biggest thing is that homophobia is no longer cool," says Jim Buzinski of Outsports.com, which has identified 28 LGBT "allies" among NFL players. "It clearly still exists, as evidenced by the fact that we don't have any out athletes. But the culture is changing and laying the groundwork."
A WATER WARRIOR
It's hard to imagine a better match of sport and advocate than ocean rowing and its leading practitioner, conservationist and climate-change activist Roz Savage. The lone woman to cross the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans solo, she'll turn a question so effortlessly into a homily on ecological stewardship that you'd think her real sport was jiu-jitsu. Are you ever scared? "You can overcome your fears when you're more afraid of something else. And what really scares me is that we might not realize what we're doing to our one and only planet in time to save the human race." What's it like to be in heavy weather on the open seas? "There's nothing like 20-foot waves to remind us where human beings stand in the scheme of things." How can someone make an impact on a problem so vast? "Most of the CO[subscript 2] in the atmosphere and plastic in the oceans has gotten there through the accumulation of many tiny, thoughtless actions by now seven billion people over the course of many years. Every tiny action counts, like five million oar strokes adding up to rowing across 15,000 miles."
In 2000, Savage, a former Oxford rower, walked away from a career as a London management consultant, as well as from her marriage, a $1.6 million Edwardian home and a bright red MX5 sports car, after imagining the look of her obituary if she were to remain on that path. She kited off to Machu Picchu for three months and studied the Hopi Indians' views on the relationship between humans and the earth. "Looking for a way to get the environmental idea across without preaching to the choir, I hit on this idea," says Savage, 44. "Or the idea came and hit me, really, to use ocean rowing as my platform."
Savage's first solo row, across the Atlantic, constituted part of that process of self-discovery, but the next two crossings became what she calls "outer journeys." All her causes—she champions 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Blue Frontier Campaign—target what she calls "the many-headed monster" of the climate crisis and ecological conservation. But, she says, "Really, the heart of that monster is us. On the one hand that makes it very simple because all we have to do is change our attitude. On the other hand that makes it unbelievably hard as well. Hopefully someday soon we'll reach a tipping point and there'll be a massive outbreak of common sense."
To hasten that day, Savage speaks and writes widely, and she's finishing up a stint as a World Fellow at Yale, where she studied global affairs and human behavior. "We tend to have very self-limiting beliefs about what's possible," she says. "I used to think I couldn't go on a big adventure because I wasn't 6'3" and bearded. But I think we could actually take much bolder steps than we tend to believe we can."
To read the original Athletes Who Care story from the 1987 Sportsman of the Year issue, download this week's digital edition of SI.