After Olympic hopeful Stella Metsovas was sidelined by severe anemia, she found a new focus for her incredible energy and passion: ending world hunger.
For eight years as a child, Metsovas trained six hours a day in swimming. At age 13, she achieved times so fast that she gained national standing and began competing in junior and senior meets, the precursors to Olympic trials in the United States. Back in her family’s homeland of Greece, she already would have qualified for the Olympics. Her parents discussed the possibility of moving there so she could compete on a global level, but for Metsovas, Greece was not an option.
“When you are born an American, you die an American. That’s just how I feel about my country,” she says. “I would have felt like an impostor.” That’s not to say Metsovas doesn’t value her Greek heritage – far from it. Her first language is Greek, and Metsovas grew up in a largely Greek community in Southern California, with her younger brother Nico. She ultimately married a land developer who is Greek American, as well.
Life wasn’t always this sweet for her family. Metsovas remembers listening to her stories from her grandfather, Constantinos Tsimahidis. “Three generations before, back in the 1800s, they actually had to leave Athens and migrate away due to conflict,” she says. Her grandfather’s parents and five siblings traveled on foot hundreds of miles to Russia. Two of the children died because of hunger and bad weather conditions.
Trial by Water
At age 14, Metsovas also faced a threat to her life – not from a cross-country trek, but from inside her own body. “I was up at a meet in Santa Barbara…I was doing a 200- meter breast stroke, and my third length of the pool I turned, and I literally felt like I couldn’t move,” she says. “[I felt like] my heart was going to explode.”
She was diagnosed as severely anemic with Ferritin (a protein that stores iron in the tissues) levels well below normal. After a year of unsuccessful medical evaluations and prescriptions for artificial hormones, her mother took her to a nutritionist, who recommended specific vitamins and minerals.
The culprit lay in the classic swimmer’s diet of that decade: pasta, and lots of it. As Metsovas explains, “I have a severe intolerance to wheat protein.” Within one month of her visit to the nutritionist, Metsovas recovered. But the intervening year had changed Metsovas’ life forever. Eventually, she decided to drop out of contention for the Olympics – but retained the self-discipline she had learned during training. “I couldn’t imagine anything that I’m doing now would have been what it is today without that,” she says.
Her health struggles also inspired Metsovas to become a nutritionist. “That was what really got me fascinated with human physiology,” she says. A successful personal health consultant, she has been voted “Best Nutritionist” by CitySearch and featured in Fox News, The New York Times, WebMD, eDiets, Univision and more. Most recently, her work with a client who also suffered from intolerance to wheat protein was featured in People Magazine’s largest selling issue of the year, “How I Lost Half My Size.” She also just signed a contract to publish a healthcare book.
Alongside Metsovas’ professional goal of helping Americans have good health is a quieter, more personal goal: alleviating hunger around the world. After she engaged in a few fasts for health reasons, the hunger pangs sparked Metsovas’ concern for others.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe people go hungry,” she says. “I can’t believe people die of hunger, and I cannot believe children, more specifically, die of hunger in this day and age.”
The same drive that had made her a world-class swimmer also made her give 100 percent to volunteering. She researched several organizations and was impressed with the responsiveness, effectiveness and high Charity Navigator rating of Friends of the World Food Program (Friends of WFP). “I went to the best,” she says. “In my opinion, the best is Friends of WFP.” In the summer of 2008, she became chair of the WFP Committee of Los Angeles, part of the WFP Committee program organized by Friends of WFP.
In December 2008, the committee used primarily in-kind donations to celebrate its launch with a cocktail reception held at the private residence of philanthropist Ninon de Vere De Rosa. In a single evening, 60 guests from the business, film and music industries raised nearly $35,000 to support the operations of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Given that
WFP can provide a child with a meal in school for about 25 cents, it’s money that will go far. According toMetsovas, it also goes beyond solving hunger. She believes that an act as simple as providing food can have a domino effect on problems like human trafficking, terrorism and the recruitment of child soldiers. “You should not carry a machine gun at the age of seven in trade for some crackers or whatever they’re giving the children,” she says.
In February 2009, Metsovas traveled with Friends of WFP staff and volunteers to Peru to learn firsthand about the potential impact of the WFP Committee program. She witnessed a WFP Food for Work/Food for Training program in part of the Andean highlands that had been deserted after warfare in the 1980s and is starting to make a comeback.
“I was shocked to find out that out of the 30,000 population that once existed before the violence occurred, 27,000 were killed,” she says. Metsovas thought of her own family’s journey to Russia. “To be able to see firsthand what my ancestors went through at a different time…It was just surreal,” she says.
As the Peruvians worked the land with hand tools, Metsovas marveled at their self-discipline, putting her old swimming regimen to shame. “My gosh, these people work hard,” she says. When she was honored with the role of presenting the deed to a couple’s new home, this disciplined, media-savvy athlete finally broke down. “I was bawling, crying….It was an experience I’ll never forget the rest of my life,” she says.
Metsovas returned to the United States with an ambitious dream for the WFP Committee of Los Angeles. She is careful to make a distinction between dreams and fantasies: “Dreams are attainable. Fantasies are not. My dream is – in the next three to five years – to raise $2 million.”
Though her health struggles and her trip to Peru helped to inspire her dream, Metsovas says it started much earlier, with a little boy and a heartbreaking journey from Greece to Russia. “The real deep-hearted passion of my commitment to this,” she says, “is my grandfather.”