Rip Esselstyn: Get Plant Strong

by Matt Rees 10

May 04th, 2020 Lifestyle

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2017 Tattoo edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

New York City firefighters have been hallowed figures since 343 of them died in the September 11 terrorist attacks. But today, flames aren’t the biggest threat facing firefighters — it’s food, and more specifically, heart disease, which is frequently triggered by an unhealthy diet. In recent years, it has contributed to sudden cardiac death, the leading cause of death among America’s firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

One former firefighter, Rip Esselstyn, is on a crusade to transform the American diet, and on a chilly night in January, he came to an old firehouse in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn to deliver his message. Fifty firefighters listened intently as Esselstyn told them that if they want to avoid becoming mortality statistics, they need to eat better, and that means giving up firehouse staples like meat, eggs, and dairy.  The response was, at best, skeptical. “They looked at me like I was asking them to give up their man card,” Esselstyn recalls.

Esselstyn is an ideal, if unorthodox, messenger for what he calls a “whole-food, plant-based diet.” In addition to having been a firefighter in Austin for more than 10 years, he was an All-American swimmer at the University of Texas, from which he graduated in 1986. He also has his own line of health food that’s sold exclusively at Whole Foods, and he’s the author of two best-selling books about health and nutrition. His Brooklyn firehouse talk was part of a national publicity tour connected to his new book, “The Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Diet.” While it’s been an unlikely journey for Esselstyn — as a kid, he wanted to be a pro baseball player — he has never taken the conventional path.

Esselstyn grew up just outside of Cleveland in a small town, Pepper Pike, that punches above its weight. (Other past residents include TV pundit George Stephanopoulos and “Saturday Night Live” star Vanessa Bayer.) As a child, he competed in many different sports — swimming, tennis, baseball, and basketball — though his devotion separated him from his peers; in sixth grade, he completed 22 pull-ups. He eventually gave up everything else to focus on swimming.

At Orange High School, he grew progressively more serious about the sport. He’d set a few school records, and he thought he wanted to swim in college. But his high school coach departed after his junior year, and it was around this time that he visited a friend who was attending Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, one of the top swimming schools in the country (alumni include SwimSwam’s Mel Stewart).

Esselstyn liked the school’s fabled coach, John Trembley, and loved the idyllic campus. When his application was accepted, his parents agreed to let him uproot and enroll. He thrived during his two years there. (He repeated his junior year.) One of his teammates and close friends, Rich Saeger, later swam for SMU and was part of the 4×200 relay (in prelims) that won gold at the 1988 Olympics.

Esselstyn blossomed as a backstroker, and his times attracted attention from colleges throughout the country, but a visit to Austin sealed his decision. He traveled in a hearse to Hippie Hollow (a park on the shore of Lake Travis), grooved on Sixth Street (home to the city’s entertainment district), and attended a football game. And yes, he visited the pool.

At the time, UT was home to two of the world’s premier backstrokers: Clay Britt held the American record in the 100 (short course), and Rick Carey held the world record in the 100 and 200 (long course). Some would have been scared away by the competition. Not Esselstyn.

“I knew that the best way to improve would be to swim with the best,” he said. “That made it easy to choose UT.”

Esselstyn did improve while in Austin. He was a part of three relays that placed as high as third at NCAAs, and he competed in the 1984 Olympic Trials while also finding time to act in Shakespeare plays. He says he loved his time at UT; he still lives in Austin, with his wife and three kids. And he took away a valuable lesson from the school’s legendary coach, Eddie Reese.

“I never saw him write down a workout,” he said. “He’d go from lane to lane and give everyone slightly different sets. It was all very intuitive — almost genius-like. It taught me that doing things in unorthodox, instinctual fashion is sometimes the best way.”

That unorthodox approach has been a theme throughout Esselstyn’s life, though it would seem to be part of his DNA. His great-grandfather, George Washington Crile, performed the first successful blood transfusion on a human patient. His grandfather, George Crile Jr., was a rebel within the medical establishment, breaking with the widely accepted practice of performing radical mastectomies on women with breast cancer. And his father, Caldwell, a physician, dissented from conventional medical thinking by choosing to focus on diet as a way to treat and prevent heart disease.

“They were all such phenomenal role models,” Esselstyn said, “and a reminder of what can happen when you’re not willing to follow the herd.”

Esselstyn certainly didn’t follow the herd coming out of college. While he interviewed for sales jobs, he concluded he didn’t want a 9-5 life. After attending a triathlon and helping on a friend’s pit crew, he decided to give the sport a try. He returned to Austin and started training full time in hopes of becoming a professional triathlete. He started racking up podium finishes, and by the next year, he’d achieved professional status. And that was Esselstyn’s life for the next decade, during which he often ranked as one of the country’s top 10 triathletes.

There was another way in which Esselstyn had gone down an unorthodox path. At the start of his triathlete career, he transformed his diet. Up to that point in his life, his eating regimen had been atrocious.

“I didn’t like vegetables,” he said. “I never ate salads. I would order a BLT and remove the lettuce and tomato. I loved mayonnaise, and I loved white bread.”

While at UT, he ate at the school’s “training table” with other athletes. It offered an unlimited supply of steak, eggs, bacon, hamburgers, soft-serve ice cream, and other items that Esselstyn refers to today as “dirty fuel.”

There was a painful irony about Esselstyn’s meat-dominated diet. Emerging medical research was showing the risks of such a diet and how personal health could be transformed by sticking to plant-based foods — vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and the like. The author of that research? Esselstyn’s father, who was a leading heart surgeon at the renowned Cleveland Clinic — and a gold medalist, in rowing, at the 1956 Olympics. His studies showed that if patients with serious heart disease followed a plant-based diet, they would likely see a dramatic drop in their cholesterol levels and not experience additional coronary events.

The research, which was published in the American Journal of Cardiology and other peer-reviewed journals, led Caldwell and his wife, Ann, to embrace a plant-based diet in 1984. Rip eventually saw the light, spurred by his parents and the example set by other elite athletes who were committed vegetarians. He maintained a plant-based diet for his 10-year career as a triathlete.

But after a decade of nonstop training and travel, he was ready for a new challenge. Once again, he went his own way, rejecting the conventional path of teaching or coaching. Instead, he sought a position with the Austin Fire Department, drawn to the opportunity to help people and save lives while avoiding the drudgery of a desk job.

He was hired in 1997, and in the years that followed he fought his share of fires, one of which nearly killed two of his colleagues. But 80 percent of the emergency calls were for medical issues such as chest pain, diabetic emergencies, and asthma attacks, he says.

“We were seeing the effects of people eating to their heart’s content,” Esselstyn said.

One day in 2003, he and two of his colleagues had their cholesterol levels tested. One of them came back with a dangerously high level, which spurred Esselstyn and his colleagues to make firehouse lunches filled with healthy, plant-based options. The practice spread and became part of the Austin firehouse culture. Esselstyn even conducted a study of his own that showed that a person’s cholesterol levels could plunge by adhering to a plant-based diet.

Favorable media coverage and interest from publishers led Esselstyn to write a book, “The Engine 2 Diet,” which in 2009 became a New York Times best-seller. Soon after, the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, contacted Esselstyn about partnering with the company as part of its healthy-eating initiative. (The planets were aligned on this one: Whole Foods is based in Austin, Mackey had been following a plant-based diet since 2003, and he was interested in the research conducted by Esselstyn’s father.) Their discussions culminated with a partnership that led Whole Foods to launch a line of food products under Esselstyn’s brand, Engine 2. Today, there are 36 Engine 2 products, ranging from cereal to spaghetti sauce, sold in Whole Foods stores throughout the country — and nearly all the packaging bears a photo of Esselstyn in his firefighter gear.

Esselstyn is deeply involved with every aspect of the operation, but particularly product development. Every item needs to meet Engine 2’s guidelines: 100 percent plant-based, no processed or refined oils, no refined grains, no added sugars, low in sodium, and less than 25 percent of the calories from naturally occurring fats.

“It’s exciting to be providing super-nutritious products to Whole Foods customers,” Esselstyn said. And those customers seem to agree: Engine 2 is one of the fastest-growing Whole Foods brands, he says.

Esselstyn hopes to bring more swimmers around to plant-based eating, but he’s well aware of the widespread misconception that a plant-based diet doesn’t offer enough protein. The reality, he says, “is that the fibers, antioxidants, phytonutrients contained in plant-based foods strengthen immunity and recovery and are filled with protein. Plants are a natural — and completely legal — way of doping.” News reports in 2008 about Michael Phelps’s diet, heavy on meat and dairy, have likely hampered efforts to get swimmers to eat a plant-based diet.

Today Esselstyn is a whirlwind of activity. In addition to his Whole Foods work, he organizes conferences and retreats throughout the country that are devoted to the plant-based lifestyle. (I attended the invigorating Plant-Stock event last year, held outside at the Esselstyn family farm in upstate New York.) He’s also one of the executive producers — along with “Titanic” director James Cameron — of a forthcoming documentary, “Game Changers,” which features elite athletes who follow a plant-based diet.

Amid all this, swimming remains fundamental to Esselstyn’s existence. He’s in the pool up to six times a week, as part of a Masters group in Austin that features two Olympic gold medalists, Shaun Jordan and Tommy Hannan, and a coach, Ian Crocker, who is a former world-record holder and UT swimmer. Esselstyn doesn’t compete much, though in 2008 he set an American record in the 200-yard backstroke for the 45-49 age group in 1:56.55, breaking the record held by Britt, his UT teammate. He’s now aiming to go under 1:59.04, which would eclipse the 50-54 age group national record set in 2015 by former Princeton swimmer Jim Tuchler.

He’s hoping his performance in the pool can help more swimmers see the value of a plant-based diet. As for those skeptical firefighters in Red Hook, Esselstyn asked them to try his diet for seven days. Some of them did, and he says they were “over the moon” to learn they had lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If Esselstyn can persuade firefighters and swimmers to adopt a healthier diet, he’s certain to win over many other groups. The sooner that happens, the better.

Matt Rees is the president of the speechwriting firm Geonomica and a Masters swimmer based in McLean, Virginia. He writes regularly for SwimSwam.

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1 year ago

Caldwell Esselstyn was a General Surgeon at Cleveland Clinic not a heart surgeon.

1 year ago

Since this was originally published, Rip broke the 55-59 200 LCM Backstroke WR twice and is the current record holder. (2:20.83)

1 year ago

I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to watch the documentary Game Changers mentioned in the article. I’m not plant based after watching it, but I did reduce my animal consumption afterwards and introduce more vegetables/fruits. It still provides an interesting look at nutrition through the lens of athletics.

Side note: I know Zane Grothe watched it and said he was going plant based until Tokyo – do we know if he’s still doing that?

Reply to  PVSFree
1 year ago

I’m 100% on board with more whole, natural foods, and it’s totally possible to be super healthy on a vegan diet, but Game Changers is misleading on several levels. It’s well produced, but there’s a lot of cherry-picking of data, huge extrapolations from studies with like three people, selective quotes from studies that don’t actually reflect the conclusion of the study, etc. I get that a lot of studies have funding from meat/dairy groups and Game Changers is quick to call out that conflict of interest, but pretty much every producer and medical professional involved with this film is making money selling vegan products so a fair bit of skepticism is warranted.

Diet is a discussion worth having, and yes,… Read more »

Reply to  sven
1 year ago

People always forget that just about literally any diet at all is better than the typical American (or other first world western country) diet.

Just being aware of your eating and making sure you don’t overconsume instantly makes you much more healthy than the vast majority of Americans, even if you persist on eating unhealthy food.

If someone wanted to they could eat only fast food and be healthier than most americans.

swammer mom
1 year ago

We were skeptical about this type of diet initially, but a cancer diagnosis in the family made us willing to give it a shot. The hardest part was enjoying the taste and finding ways to cook differently than we knew how to at the time. We got cookbooks on plant-based or whole food diets from the library and made copies of what interested us and started trying them. That took some time.

We purchased three of them because pretty much every recipe we tried was liked by someone if not everyone in our house. If you want to save yourself some time, the three cookbooks we found that had the most success were “The Cancer Fighting Kitchen”, “the Longevity… Read more »

1 year ago

Kudos to Rip for his ongoing work around plant-based diets, especially for elite athletes.

1 year ago

It’s “Flashback to Longhorns of the 80s” day with both Chris Jacobs and Rip Esseltyn profiles. Thanks, SwimSwam!

Now, please do a story on Shaun Jordan’s t-shirt empire.

Reply to  1001pools
1 year ago

Very happy for Rip’s success over the year. Great idea on SJ’s T-shirt business. On a parallel note, SwimSwam should revisit the day Shaun literally dove out of suit and put on a unexpected show for the crowd at Cal back in 1987. SI mentioned the “white suit” incident in an article about the old Dallas Morning News meet held at SMU. Fun times! Google it!

1 year ago

Yes, several clear to me are standing out; too bad that no one fact checked for this author back then when initially published and then also again when they’ve decided to offer us a glimpse of this article from its print edition. Rich Saeger’s gold medal prelim swim was NOT in ’88- THAT would have made him an Olympic teammate of Mel’s. Saeger won a relay world champ gold in 82 at Guayaquil and a prelim relay gold in the 84 Olympics.