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A True Olympian at Heart

Athlete and advocate Chris Jarvis keeps the flame burning

In this exciting year, when over two dozen people living with diabetes were among those carrying the symbolic Olympic Torch as it made its way to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, Chris Jarvis reflected on those words and how they affected his experience as a “D-Olympian,” an athlete living with diabetes who competed in the Games.

Jarvis is a rower who took personal discouragement to triumph on the world stage. As a young college student at Northeastern University in Boston, he was struggling with a number of issues, his type 1 diabetes among them. “I wasn’t confident, so I approached my coach,” Jarvis says. “Instead of helping, the coach used that as an opportunity to tell me I wouldn’t be able to row varsity, mostly due to my diabetes.” But Jarvis turned that discouragement around and rowed past the doubts of a non-believing coach all the way to the Olympics. After his time at Northeastern, he raced in international competitions for eight years, including several years as a member of the Canadian rowing team that participated in the 2004 Summer Games that took place in Athens.

Jarvis credits advice from the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, which encouraged him in many ways, including testing more often and eating more healthfully, with helping him get his competitive edge back. “When I started following their advice, things turned around so quickly,” he says. “Imagine you’ve been dragging a heavy weight behind you, but you’re still keeping up. Then suddenly, that weight is gone.”

As a professional athlete, Jarvis worked hard at both rowing and managing his blood sugar. He kept a kit with glucose tabs and water in the boat, which helped him get through grueling three-hour, twice-daily practices. “It’s important for athletes to be able to think on their feet and deal with anything, including diabetes, without emotion,” he says. “Most driven athletes just try to tough things out. But my strategy is different: I focus on trying to be prepared for anything.”

Jarvis remains committed to the Olympic tradition of sportsmanship. His drive and dedication are now focused on I Challenge Diabetes, a non-profit organization he founded five years ago to support young Canadians living with diabetes. Jarvis is especially passionate about giving youngsters the opportunity to have fun and interact with elite competitors on all kinds of active events, including hiking expeditions, hockey camps, and biking trips. Jarvis is passionate about including at-risk and lower-income kids in the supportive I Challenge community. All the kids get plenty of life lessons – and fun! – along the way, but Jarvis and his team especially encourage a feeling of openness about having diabetes. “People with diabetes do all sorts of things, but we often develop a tough attitude and don’t talk about it much,” he says. “My team and I want these kids to learn to talk about it.”

And he tells the young people he meets that, while diabetes may be a challenge, it’s overcoming that challenge that will be most rewarding. “Even when my sugars were off, I would do my best if I stayed focused – and in most cases, it was better than what others could do,” he says. “Making it onto the podium is really special, but looking at all the challenges that you’ve faced and overcome, that’s where the overwhelming feeling that you’ve made it comes in. I can remember the challenges I faced more than standing on the podium.”

Greg Presto is a Washington, DC-based writer and videographer. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, The Chicago Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, Life&Style Weekly, Atlanta Sports and Fitness, and Lakeland Boating. Presto is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

 © 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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