Meet Annalena Baerbock, the trampolinist giving Germany's Green party a bounce in the race to succeed Angela Merkel

Annalena Baerbock is the Greens candidate for chancellor in upcoming German elections.

(CNN)Cast an eye over the candidates hoping to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor, and one of the phrases most often used by political pundits describing the Green party's nominee Annalena Baerbock is: "A breath of fresh air."

Among a lineup of gray-haired middle-aged men vying for the top job, Baerbock -- a 40-year-old former professional trampolinist -- stands out.
Baerbock is the Green party's first ever candidate for chancellor, in September's momentous elections that will see Merkel step down after almost 16 years at the helm.
    The question is, can Baerbock translate that "breath of fresh air" into real winds of change for Germany?
      Since announcing Baerbock as their candidate, the Greens have enjoyed a bounce in opinion polls, propelling them into first place ahead of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) bloc.
      The Greens' surge coincides with a slump in the CDU/CSU's popularity; the conservatives are mired in corruption scandals, leadership squabbles, and questions over their handling of a ferocious third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
      Along with the party's co-leader, Robert Habeck, Baerbock has steered the Greens -- once known as the "anti-party party" -- to the center of German politics.
        "There is something of the Tony Blair about her," said Nicholas Wright, lecturer in EU politics at University College London.
        "The fact that she comes from the pragmatist, realist part of the party, basically saying: 'It's all very well having these ideals and principles, but they don't matter if we can't get into government and do anything.'"

        Muesli eaters to mainstream

        Baerbock grew up on a farm in a small village in Lower Saxony, in what was then West Germany, with her engineer father, social education worker mother, two sisters and two cousins.
        She was born in 1980 -- the same year Germany's Greens party was founded.
        As a child, her hippyish parents took her on anti-nuclear demonstrations.
        "It was a lot more radical back then," Wright said of the party that emerged in the wake of the 1960s student movement.
        "Militant muesli eaters," was how some critics described them, he added.
        Much as they are today, the Greens were strongly pro-environment and anti-nuclear. But back then they were also anti-NATO and suspicious of multilateralism. That stance has shifted over the decades.
        Baerbock came of age just as the party was moving from the political fringes to the mainstream; when she was in her late teens, the Greens became junior partners with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in a ruling coalition.
        It was a significant moment in the party's journey -- even if journalists at the time still asked Green politicians snide questions about muesli.
        Fast forward to 2021 and the party's candidate for chancellor is a "strong multilateralist," said Wright. Baerbock supports the European Union, and Germany's role in NATO.
        That said, she has also been critical of targets for NATO members to spend 2% of their GDP on defense.

        Jumping up the ranks

        Before she entered politics, Baerbock was a champion trampolinist, winning bronze three times in national competitions.
        "It's a bit of an outsider sport," said Waltraud Schelkle, professor of political economy at the European Institute, London School of Economics.
        "It shows she had a certain self-discipline, ambition, and toughness at an early age."
        Indeed Baerbock's political rise has been swift. She studied political science and public law at the University of Hamburg, completed a master's degree in international law at the London School of Economics, and for a few years was a journalist at German newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung.
        In the mid-2000s Baerbock worked as an assistant to Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter. After unsuccessfully running for the Bundestag in 2009, Baerbock finally got a seat in 2013; she served as the Greens' climate policy spokesperson, and later its co-leader.