What happens when you’re 19 years old and given the opportunity to chase your dream of being an Olympian? It’s an easy enough answer: You take it. Here’s a tougher question: What happens when, while training for that dream, you are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes? The answer? You. Keep. Going.
I will never forget that day in 2001 when my life changed forever. It was just after coming to Salt Lake City to train for my first Olympics. It was a normal day with a routine blood test. Yes, I was severely thirsty and tired, but who wouldn’t be after running 25 miles? And my countless bathroom trips? Well, I was drinking all that water to keep up with my thirst.
Then the bomb came: My blood sugar was 260. And that was only the first one of the day. The team doctor told me that no one with type 1 diabetes could compete in my sport at the Olympic level. I would need to readjust my expectations and consider giving up. I was shocked. I didn’t want to believe this could be the end, but I was scared. I knew nothing about diabetes.
I left the doctor’s office in a fog and, while my teammates were on a break, I went kayaking — to cry, scream, and be mad at the world. Then I decided to learn about my disease. . . .
Let me be clear. I didn’t get over it that easily. I’m still not over it, because that’s the thing; you can’t get over diabetes. It’s there—every day. But I knew that I needed to find a way to manage my disease and keep my dream alive. So I started reading anything I could find about type 1 diabetes. Treatment options, diet, counting carbs, using a glucose meter, exercise, physiology, psychology — I devoured it all. But what I was really looking for was one example of an athlete who had type 1 diabetes and stayed competitive. I found that person in Gary Hall, Jr.
Hall, Jr., a 10-time Olympic medalist in swimming, had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1999 and gone on to win four medals in the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. His example gave me the faith I needed to go on. Of course, believing I could compete and doing it are two different things, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I needed a team, and not just the team who helped me train, but a healthcare team, a medical family, who believed in my dream and wouldn’t ask me to readjust anything but my insulin dose.
I found that team, and their help gave me the courage to pursue my dream and work hard to succeed. In the 12 years since my diagnosis, I have won 15 National Championships and become a top-ranked U.S. skier. And yet, I still rely on my medical family to help me navigate the challenges of competitive skiing. Competing with type 1 diabetes is not easy. It’s an exercise in patience, biology, geography, and culinary pursuits, among others. Meals aren’t always timed the way I need, and sometimes local cuisine is just not compatible with an ideal blood sugar level. Altitudes and time zones change frequently, which can wreak havoc on my ability to sleep. I have to get permission from the U.S. and global Olympic governing bodies to inject insulin so others don’t accuse me of gaining a competitive advantage. But it’s the path I chose.
I could have given up along the way. Many thought I should have. But that’s not who I am, and it’s not who I want to be. Even lying in the snow after collapsing because of low blood sugar in the middle of an Olympic race that, moments before, I was leading, I knew I had to get up — no matter what. And that perseverance is something I try to share with children living with type 1 diabetes. Yes, I want to win a medal for myself and my country, but more importantly, I want every child I talk to to feel that they can do the same.
I’ve been on skis since I could walk, and I have been lucky enough to compete against the best in the world — something I never could have done if I had “readjusted my expectations” with diabetes. But the place I really make my mark is at diabetes camps. Every summer for the last eight years, on behalf of Lilly Diabetes, I’ve shared my story with campers, hoping to help them see all the possibilities open to them, even with type 1 diabetes. What I didn’t expect was the impact the kids would have on me.
It was the summer after that terrible day on the Olympic course in Vancouver. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got to camp. I’d been telling kids that they could achieve almost anything, yet I had come up short. Would they be disappointed in me? Would they doubt their own abilities or question their dreams? I have to admit, I was a little nervous going into that first camp. But what followed was pretty amazing.
I had just finished my presentation, in which I had talked about my diagnosis and what had happened in Vancouver that February. After the group dispersed, I noticed a young boy lagging behind the others, so I went over to talk to him. He said simply, “I just wanted to tell you you’ve already won in my eyes, and I’ll always root for you.”
His words caught me off guard. I realized at that moment that these kids were just as inspired by my determination to rise and finish as they would have been had I taken a medal. While I was focused on the loss, they were focused on me getting back up. I was worried that they would see me as less of a role model that day, but it seems they saw something else — I was human, just like them.
I formed a bond that summer with the campers that stays with me to this day. It has helped me reorient my thinking when it comes to wins and losses. I still want to win, but I can take things more in stride. The 2010 Olympics were my worst competitive days and the worst I’ve felt physically in my life. It took me months to stop beating myself up. It only took ten seconds and a boy saying, “You’ve already won,” to make me believe the best is yet to come.
It’s pretty hard to walk into a diabetes camp and not be instantly hooked. You can feel people changing, growing — becoming more, myself included. On my hardest days, I sometimes still forget what’s possible. But when that happens, I’m lucky to have the support of my friends and family — and the campers I meet, who remind me that diabetes doesn’t have to stand in the way. I can still get back up.
To volunteer at a camp in your area or to register a child, visit www.diabetescamps.org. Kris Freeman is a paid spokesperson for Lilly Diabetes; click here to learn more about him and his work with Lilly.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.