You'd expect a gold-medal snowboarder to be confident, outgoing, brassy, even. And Hannah Teter - who won the halfpipe competition in Torino and is competing again in Vancouver to defend her title - is all that. What you might not expect is for her to donate her Olympic winnings ($25,000), plus all her other prize money since 2008 (almost $75,000 from some 10 events), to charity. While growing up in Belmont, Vermont, a town she says had "more deer than people," Teter, 23, developed a reverence for the greater world.
She won her gold medal at 19, an age she calls "an interesting time to peak," and immediately started looking for something more to do with her life. It was around then that she began sponsoring Kirindon, a Kenyan village of about 60,000, supplementing her contest earnings with proceeds from selling Vermont maple syrup and organic wristbands at hannahsgold.com. Because of her, Kirindon's residents should have consistent access to clean water by 2011.
Q: Why the interest in Africa?
A: It's a humanitarian issue. Every 15 seconds someone dies of a water-related disease. Clean water is such a treasure that we take for granted in America. One of the goals is to equip all of Kirindon with sanitary water, using wells, boreholes, and rainwater catchments.
Q: Do you view humanitarian issues as environmental issues?
A: They are interconnected for sure. The earth is one big interconnected entity. If you hurt a piece, you hurt the whole. If you hurt the people, you hurt the environment. They end up polluting more. The issues swap back and forth.
Q: As a cold-weather athlete, are you particularly concerned about climate change?
A: As a winter athlete, I'm concerned, but I'm more concerned for reasons outside the snow-sport industry. I'm concerned for the global population, for everyone. No one is really paying enough attention. It's hard to make everyone aware of what's going on because of our unsustainable ways. Africa's tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro, now has no snow.
Q: Given your affinity for mountains, how do you feel about mountaintop-removal mining?
A: Ugh! I feel like we're still barbarians when I see mountaintops getting blown up and rivers being destroyed. They go in and coal is the only thing on their mind. Coal, coal, coal. If people were more aware of all the bad things that come from it, it would quickly be made illegal. It's unreal, but it's happening. Hopefully we can make it not happen. It just takes everyone wanting it and voicing their opinion.
Q: How does where you're from and where you live affect you?
A: I grew up in the deep woods of Vermont, and my mom kept a big organic garden. My dad made our house by hand. Our family sponsored a child through World Vision. My parents emphasized it, and I felt privileged. We didn't have a lot but we had enough to be totally sustainable and happy and it gave me such an appreciation for the environment. It seems like the woods are some of the planet's purest places to live. It was just so beautiful, and I realized that at a young age. Growing up there, I felt so grateful and so hooked up with life.
I live in Tahoe now. I visited my brothers [also Olympic snowboarders] there and thought, wow, bigger mountains, tons of snow, totally different ecosystem. I just fell in love with it right away. I moved there when I was 18 because it was so pristine and beautiful.
Q: What was it like seeing the environmental conditions in Kenya?
A: It was life-changing. I had never really thought about the difference between clean and dirty water. We got to see the previous drinking hole, and it was filled with slime and muck, and families would have to walk to miles to it. All the cows drank from it. Then we went over to the new pump, and I had never imagined such a difference. I had no idea that water could be so gross and what so many millions of people have to drink. They only have dirty water. It's the leading cause of death worldwide.
Q: How are you supporting sustainable farming initiatives in Africa?
A: One of the first projects we did was to provide Kirindon with basic farming tools and organic seeds. They have all the land and decent soil, but they just don't have the tools. The goal is to equip a big portion of the town to be food-sustainable. It's all about organic gardening.
Q: And you gave bicycles to the locals?
A: We bought a bunch of bikes for them because they had to walk miles for water or to collect wood for fire. With a bike, they can do all that stuff way easier. Instead of having to spend half a day getting water, they can spend half an hour, and use the rest of the time to do whatever else they need, like taking care of kids.
Q: How does your training schedule leave time for your charity work?
A: Snowboarding is intense, and I'm busy during winter, but in the summer it's a lot more mellow. So I take a lot more time to be creative and brainstorm ways to be helpful in the world. I have a lot of downtime to be able to be creative about charity ideas. I made a pact with myself when I was younger that if were to ever grow up to be someone, I would be someone who would make a difference, instead of being just another person on the planet who doesn't look into anything.
Q: How did you decide to go vegetarian?
A: I went vegetarian after watching Earthlings. I had no idea how intense and how horrible factory farms are. I have such a love for animals that I can't justify having their heads cut off for me. And the slavery of the dairy industry motivates me to go more vegan. I can't justify animal slavery for my enjoyment. I love the Gandhi quote: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Animals can't speak for themselves, but scientifically we know that they don't want to die.
Q: Isn't it difficult to be a vegetarian athlete?
A: I feel stronger than I've ever been, mentally, physically, and emotionally. My plant-based diet has opened up more doors to being an athlete. It's a whole other level that I'm elevating to. I stopped eating animals about a year ago, and it's a new life. I feel like a new person, a new athlete.
Q: What helped you win in Torino?
A: Snowboarding definitely provides a platform to be able to reach out to a way big audience. It's an opportunity to reach millions, and it's opened a big arena of possibilities for me. I was actually injured in Torino and wasn't training, just visualizing and tapping into deep motivation. I thought, if I were to do well, I could use that to make positive changes in the world. That was the motivation to help me win for sure.
Q: Without that thought, you might not have won?
A: I don't think I would have.
Q: What environmental trend would you like to set?
A: I would make it so that organic products were at the top of everybody's list to buy. I think if that was in, there'd be big change. I wish that fur and leather products weren't cool, and that things that hurt the environment and animals were out. Recycled lines, organic lines, those are just way cooler. But I think that's coming along as people become more aware.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
A: To keep the charity going, to expand to different charities, to get youth more aware of everything that's going on, from mountaintop removal to rainforest destruction to poverty. I'd like to get young kids to be a voice for the underprivileged, to speak for them.
Q: Have you already worked with kids?
A: I've spoken to about 6,000 middle school and high school kids about the benefit of believing in yourself, staying motivated, and knowing that you're good enough regardless of what other people say to numb your belief in yourself. I tell them they can follow their dreams, tell them motivational stories. They were just so stoked to have someone there relating to them. I want to do it more just because of the positive benefits that have arisen.
Q: What's the goal of Hannah's Gold?
A: To help to create a world that works for everyone, for all creatures, never excluding anyone for any reason.
Follow Avital Binshtock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/avitalb