Interview with Theresa Zabell

"If we stop plastic at its source, we will save the planet, and above all our seas, from terrible harm"

Nature Interviews


November 2019.    Reading time: 4 minutes

Theresa Zabell is used to winning battles. As a sportswoman, she won two Olympic gold medals (Barcelona 92' and Atlanta 96') and after retiring, she launched into a new challenge, one that she had been thinking about for years: protecting the oceans. With her winner's mindset intact, she assures us that we still have time to turn the situation around if we all set to work.

Theresa Zabell

Theresa Zabell, twice Olympic champion (Barcelona 92' and Atlanta 96') and president of the Ecomar Foundation.

There is only one sportswoman in Spain who can say she is twice Olympic champion, and she is none other than Theresa Zabell. Many still remember the image of her at the helm of her boat at Barcelona 92' and Atlanta 96', but her achievements don't end there. After finishing her sports career, she founded the Ecomar Foundation, and for the last 20 years has worked on giving the sea back part of what it gave her. How? By organising workshops with children to raise their awareness about caring for the environment and activities to pick up waste from the beaches.

The sea has always been part of your life. What does it mean to you and how do you feel when you see it invaded by waste like plastic?

The sea has always meant everything to me. Since I started to sail, I was aware that the sea was full of things that shouldn't be there. For instance when things got caught on my boat's keel. And then I wondered: Why doesn't anybody do anything to take it all out? And as this question kept on coming back, when I gave up Olympic sailing I decided that I had to be the one to do it. That's how the Ecomar Foundation came about.

From 1 to 10, do you think our planet is in a state of climate emergency?

I have thought that our planet is in a state of climate emergency for some time, but we have taken so long to realise. Where do you put us from 1 to 10? Not at 10, because it is still reversible. I couldn't say exactly what number because I'm not a scientist, but I do believe that we all have to act to turn this situation around.

We all have to get to work to leave the planet in an acceptable state for our children

What does a woman like you, who has spent a large part of her life looking after the seas and oceans, think about the involvement of society as a whole and of companies like Iberdrola, in particular, in caring for the environment?

When we face such a dramatic, such a drastic and serious situation, we all have to join forces. We all have to get together; young and old, right-wing and left-wing, large corporations and small companies, to form a common front. Here there are no sides or rivalries. We are delighted that large corporations have realised that it is time to act, because in the end we are all pursuing the same goal, which is to turn the planet's situation around.

Plastic has invaded the oceans and experts rate the situation as alarming, what is the solution? Is to reduce his presence in our lives?

We don't want to demonise plastic because it also gives us good things, but we do want to alert everyone about the waste that can end up in the sea if it is not treated properly. And this is the message we give everyone who does sustainability workshops with us, both young and old. If we stop plastic at its source, we will save the planet, and above all our seas, from terrible harm.

Given the present situation, what kind of planet will we leave for our children? Do you believe the new generations are more environmentally aware?

I am optimistic and I think we will leave them a planet in an acceptable condition. But to leave them that planet, we all have to get to work. Nowadays, from a very early age, we are educating children and making them aware that the planet is not limitless. There has therefore been a change of awareness, a change in habits, a change in education. And that is very important. Young people are much more aware of this issue, and we have to continue in this direction.

You are the only Spanish woman with two Olympic golds, how do you see the present and future of women's sport?

Women's sport in Spain came to a turning point with Barcelona 92'. And now I and my colleagues, those we call the Generation of 92, we feel very proud to have paved the way for sportswomen who are now giving us much to celebrate. Women's sport here is now very healthy in terms of our results, and this is important. But it's also important to see how there are so many women, youngsters and girls who now play sport as a way of life, when they didn't before. That's wonderful.