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Type 1 Athletes Defying the Odds

Challenging themselves and inspiring others with diabetes

For anyone adventurous enough to try it, the hazards of snowboard mountaineering include avalanches, hypothermia, and high altitude sickness, to name a few. For someone with diabetes, add trying to control blood sugar to the list of the extreme sport’s dangers. Yet professional snowboarder and type 1 diabetic Sean Busby travels to Antarctica, Greenland, and Tasmania — among other remote locations — both to challenge himself and to explore the unknown, despite the dangers.

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after a very successful season at the Canadian National Championships, Busby considered giving up the sport he loves. “When I was diagnosed in 2004, I was looking at retiring, as I didn’t know if it would be possible to still snowboard at a competitive level as a type 1 diabetic. Fortunately, I was inspired by the JDRF event ‘Children’s Congress,’ where I read stories of kids who have been living with type 1 diabetes their whole lives. I knew that if a 5-year-old could do it, then so could I.”

Determined to challenge himself and inspire others, Busby organized the first of many snowboarding mountaineering expeditions to Antarctica. He explains that even the sport’s training is extreme, as it involves dragging a large tire around the neighborhood, often with local kids on board, all while keeping his blood sugar stable. It also means figuring out a way to keep his insulin from freezing, and monitoring his blood sugar in the high altitude. Busby realized that if his blood sugar isn’t in check, he could put everyone else in danger. “It all comes down to really incorporating your diabetes into who you are and not seeing it as something separate.”

During the expeditions, Busby sends live satellite phone calls and videos to several children’s hospitals and diabetes foundations around the world. “I wanted to share the message that you can still try do anything that you set your mind to with diabetes.” This message is also spread through his nonprofit organization, Riding on Insulin, “a place where we can share tips in managing diabetes as well as provide a safe environment for participants.”

Another high-level athlete, professional BMX rider Matt Neal, founded Team Type 1 BMX to share a similar message. “I take care of my body through exercise and nutrition, and do my best on the BMX track. My hope is that I can inspire others to do the same.” Being diagnosed with type 1 at 28 required Neal, who had been riding since he was 10, to change the way he trained. “I test my glucose levels a lot. I also use continuous glucose monitoring to see where I’m at and where I’m trending. I use an insulin delivery device that lets me set temporal basal rates to help combat any increase in glucose levels. Plus, I like that it lets me deliver insulin in very small and accurate amounts.”

A sprinting sport with races that last 30-45 seconds, BMX is an “all-out sport,” according to Neal. “This makes it challenging to manage glucose levels because the adrenaline and anaerobic nature of the activity tends to raise my glucose levels.” The success of Team Type 1 BMX has shown that extreme sports are not off-limits to people with diabetes.

Transforming the mindset of people with diabetes from “I can’t” to “I can” is the goal for both Riding on Insulin and Team Type 1 BMX. Busby adds, “Working with other kids with type 1 has been the best medicine aside from insulin for managing my diabetes.”

Amy Stockwell Mercer is a freelance writer with type 1 diabetes living in Charleston, SC. She blogs at re-Defining Diabetes and her work can be found in a variety of publications including Charleston Magazine, The City Paper, Diabetes Health, and Literary Mama and is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

Sanofi US is the primary sponsor of Team Type 1, an umbrella of athletes with diabetes; inclusive of Team Type 1 BMX.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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