Although he’s considered by many to be one of the world’s finest freestyle footballers Tom Folan says he has more work to do. The Surrey-based athlete, who has visited a number of countries so far in his career, including the USA, Poland, and China, now wants to use his platform to promote the message of veganism.
“Going vegan is the best thing I’ve ever done, on a physical, mental, and spiritual level,” Tom, 22, tells Vegan Life. “I stopped eating animal products very quickly after watching the documentary Earthlings and I quickly discovered that you can be a world class athlete and no animals have to die for you to do it. A few years ago, I cared very little about the food I was putting into my body. As a result, I wasn’t able to train at the same intensity I can now. The food I ate was so boring before – I wouldn’t go out for dinner anywhere if I couldn’t get steak and chips, or pizza. Now I love food.”
And his diet has powered him to considerable success as an athlete. “Freestyle football is a relatively new sport,” explains Tom. “It became popular around 2006, alongside social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram. I believe social media has played a large role in how much bigger the sport has got over the last few years – Instagram is huge, it’s a great platform, and probably the top marketing tool for athletes. Marketing yourself is very different to the sport side of things, but you need to be ready to multitask in this career
“It is its own sport, with its own federation and competitions – it is separate to football. The only thing they have in common is the use of the ball. Comparing football to freestyle football is like comparing ice hockey to figure skating: there is that similarity, but they are fundamentally different sports.”
Tom says many people believe freestyle football is about ‘keepy-uppies’, but there is a lot more to it than that. According to the Freestyle Football Federation: “It is the art and sport of juggling a football using all parts of the body to entertain audiences and outperform opponents in competitions. It is a fusion of tricks with a ball, dance and music.”
Tom adds: “When I started out, there were a handful of other guys. In just a few years, the number of and quality of the athletes have both grown so much. It’s an amazing community – not unlike the vegan community – full of like-minded people. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years. I started freestyle when I was 12. Before that I had been playing football, and maybe it’s something I could have done well in, but I didn’t have the right commitment. When I picked up the ball and started doing freestyle tricks, it was something I really wanted to spend time doing, I really wanted to train. There are no shortcuts, you just have to put in the work – so that should come from a place of enjoyment.”
This passion has led to a number of significant accomplishments over the years. Tom says: “I would say one of my biggest achievements is coming second in a big competition in China, hosted by Red Bull. I like how the company does so much helping niche sports develop.
“When it comes to accomplishments from a personal point of view, I have always had people I looked up to, and would message, asking questions and looking for advice. For me to now be in a position where people are messaging me, saying that I inspire them, is amazing –and definitely feels like one of my most important achievements.”
He values social media for the role it has played in developing both of his passions of freestyle football and veganism. At the time of going to press, Tom has around 60,000 Instagram followers – a count which is rapidly growing. Fans check out his timeline to watch video clips of him performing astonishing freestyle moves, as well as snaps documenting his travel and lifestyle. He also uses the platform to showcase delicious vegan meals, inviting positive commentary on his food choices, and inspiring others to give vegan food a try. “I love how it gives you the opportunity to be interactive with inspiring people from all over the globe,” he says.
When it comes to people who inspire him as a vegan, like many others, Tom lists former world champion free runner Timothy Shieff as a key figure. “I do find him really inspiring. It feels like now he’s focussed his attention on something that’s bigger than himself,” Tom explains. “Seeing him go from athlete to vegan activist is definitely amazing. I firmly believe there is a whole spectrum of activism, and for some people, it’s right for them to go on marches and to be more militant. For many, the Earthlings Experience (where masked, silent activists hold screens playing the documentary, for members of the public to watch) is amazing. For others, that’s too extreme an introduction. In a way, I feel that just being vegan is a form of activism in itself, as you are rejecting so much of the commodification of animals.”
And the change has not just impacted on his sporting performance, but on his whole life. Tom says: “I was never the type of person to think about diet. My sister was vegetarian for quite a while, and like an ignorant meat eater, I would laugh at her and wave bacon in her face. It wasn’t until I started doing some serious soul searching some time later that I changed. After finding out about some of the disgusting ways animals are treated, that was it for me. There and then I vowed not to eat any animal products anymore – that was just over three years ago.
“It’s difficult to explain the mental and spiritual transformation I’ve experienced, and it’s something that will always be really important to me. Once I’d made the decision to become vegan, there was never going to be any going back.
You can follow Tom on Instagram @tomfolanfs and on Twitter @TomFolanFS