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Extreme Diabetes Advocates, Spreading Hope

Athletes on a mission to support people living with diabetes

For people living with diabetes like me, hope is a powerful catalyst. We hope for a cure, we hope for new developments in technology, and on some days, we hope to make it through the day feeling good. Hope is part of the fuel that motivates us to check our blood sugar, to eat healthfully, and to count carbs day after day. Trying to do it all alone may make a person feel overwhelmed. But hearing the stories of athletes such as cyclist and Team Type 1 CEO Phil Southerland and climber Steve Richert of Living Vertical: Project 365, who not only defy expectations of what people with diabetes can do, but who passionately advocate on behalf of all of us with diabetes, fills me with hope.

Southerland was diagnosed in 1982, at the age of seven months and today says he is “in the business of creating heroes” with Team Type 1 (TT1). By “heroes,” he means people who are living well with diabetes. “Nearly every team member has discovered that trying to take control of their own wellbeing has changed their lives for the better, and they now have a platform to spread stories of hope,” he says. “Made up of seven ‘squads’ (professional, development, elite, women’s, runners, triathlon, and type 2) with 107 athletes from eleven countries, TT1 is a global sports organization inspiring people with diabetes around the world through racing, groundbreaking research, international outreach, and philanthropic initiatives.

In 2010, Team Type 1 raced in the Tour of Rwanda and presented 35,000 test strips and 400 blood glucose meters to children without access to these supplies.. “The first year we traveled to Rwanda, we gave diabetes patients hope,” Southerland says. “I knew we had to go back.” Team Type 1 raised $250,000 and returned a year later with more test strips and meters. “Within that year, the average A1C among this group had dropped.” When TT1 returned, they brought Dr. Steve Edelman, founder of Taking Control of Your Diabetes, and traveled around, offering workshops and training to healthcare professionals. They also returned with a renewed focus on victory in the race itself, because during, “the first year we got our butts kicked,” Southerland laughs. But in 2011, Team Type 1 took the overall victory and four stage wins, which was a huge boost for the diabetes community of Rwanda.

The most significant moment for Southerland occurred after the bike tour was over. Traveling to Dubai, he met a young man from Rwanda who wanted to say thank you. “This young man told me, ‘Before your team came to Rwanda, everyone looked at me with pity, but after you came, they looked at me like I was a champion. I believe I’m healthier because of you,’” Southerland says. Team Type 1 shares the message that you cannot take access to medical care and supplies for granted, encouraging American kids to check their blood sugar in honor of a kid in Rwanda. Learn more about Southerland and the global impact of Team Type 1.

Steve and Stefanie Richert of Living Vertical: Project 365 are equally passionate about raising awareness and inspiring people to live well with diabetes. Traveling across the country from mountain to mountain in their little red car, their plan is to climb every day for 365 days and document their journey into the “wildest, steepest, and most extreme terrain in North America –to conquer the seemingly unconquerable; overcoming diabetes through the simple act of climbing – every day, for one year.” Their goal is to show the resulting documentary to newly diagnosed patients in hospitals and schools across the country.

Diagnosed in 1999 when he was sixteen years old, Steve Richert didn’t know anyone with type 1 diabetes. “I was going to school in Alaska at the time and living with a host family who wouldn’t allow me to use diabetes as a crutch,” he says. “I decided right then and there that I was going to work very hard to keep living the life I wanted to live. I was not going to make diabetes my magnetic north.” For Richert, diabetes does not define him.

This no-nonsense attitude has served Richert well over the years. He maintains a tasty, mostly plant-based diet (some of his favorites include carrots, nuts, cabbage, and quinoa) and a fitness-oriented lifestyle. “My number one priority is being active and healthy,” he says, “That’s my full-time job.” Being active for Richert is all about climbing, yet he admits that there are challenges to climbing with diabetes. Managing these challenges means taking certain precautions, such as climbing with a partner, eating “useful carbs” that are high in nutrients and low on the Glycemic Index, and “grazing” throughout the day. “Diabetes has forced me to redefine my relationship with food and I see it as a blessing.”

Steve and Stefanie recognize that climbing is not for everyone, but they want to inspire others to find something they love, something they can feel passionate about as a goal. “Just having a goal every day makes such a difference in life with diabetes, and, yes, failure is part of the equation,” says Steve, “But it’s worth it in the end.” No matter what our circumstances, “we all have mountains to climb,” Steve says. Following extreme athletes as they travel across the country climbing mountains or biking through “the land of a thousand hills” in West Africa is a powerful way of holding onto hope.

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. Amy Stockwell Mercer is a paid contributor for the 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 U.S. is the title sponsor of Team Type 1 and is a sponsor of Taking Control of Your Diabetes and its STAND Initiative.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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