Today I have the sincere pleasure of introducing you to my friend, the cycling and diabetes advocate icon, Phil Southerland. Many of you know Phil as the founder of Team Type 1, a professional cycling team, and author of the book Not Dead Yet. However, in today’s post I wanted to focus on the man inside the helmet and share things like Phil’s passion for health and fitness, his mission to inspire others with diabetes and even his love life (yes ladies, he is officially off the market)!
In 1982 Phil was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at just 7 months old. He explained that he grew up in a home where health and exercise were a focal point of the family lifestyle. The fact that his family ate healthy consistently and never kept junk food or sugary cereals in the house made blood sugar management easier for Phil. This explains why I was quite surprised to find out that Phil discovered his passion for cycling through another love in life, Snickers® candy bars.
“When I was 12 years old I fell in love with a Snickers® bar and ate it and my blood sugar went sky high,” said Phil. “I noticed that if I rode my bike I needed to eat, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone. I would get on my bike and ride to a gas station 3 miles from my house. I’d buy a Snickers® bar and then I could go ride around for another hour and I’d feel great.”
With the Snickers® bar serving as a desirable motivation, Phil began to ride more often and even enjoyed the fact that he would check his blood sugar before getting on his bike. As Phil started riding with other people he noticed his body reacted to cycling very similarly to those biking without diabetes.
“If my legs hurt, I ate more food,” Phil said. “I noticed when their legs hurt, they would eat too, but these were people without diabetes. It was an equalizer for me. When I was riding bikes I was 100% normal.”
It was experiences like these that showed Phil how much he valued being independent and responsible when it came to his diabetes. He explained how identifying the benefits to healthy blood sugar management can serve as a powerful motivation.
“At 6 years old I took the job of CEO of my own body and began the management of my diabetes during the waking hours,” Phil said. “For me, it was a challenge and I was competitive. I wanted my A1C to be below 7 because my doctor said then I’d be able to see all of the beautiful things in this world. And I knew if I had good blood sugar management I would be successful in sports. Diabetes never held me back.”
Giving credit to his mother for letting him manage his blood sugars at a young age, Phil says that not all parents empower their children to take charge. He has seen a lot of parents that are overbearing, and points out that every kid wants the responsibility at a certain point and it’s important to let them have it.
“A good analogy is that if you always have training wheels on your bike you’ll never learn to ride,” Phil said. “Every kid wants to take their training wheels off at a certain point and when the child says ‘I want to do this’ the parents need to allow them to do it. They should just run next to them in case they fall, and then the parent can catch them.”
It was that love for riding and the urge to make a difference that led Phil to what he describes as his biggest accomplishment, the founding of Team Type 1. When he started the team, he had no idea what it was going to become, and now he is humbled by the fact that the program gives kids heroes to look up to and the strength to know blood sugar management is possible.
“What we’re doing with a bike is phenomenal,” Phil said. “A year ago we were banned from racing in Russia because we had diabetes. Through education, we’ve changed the way an entire country looks at a disease. Team Type 1 was just the tip of the iceberg that had led to so much more.”
After participating in an event in Athens, Greece last year, Phil was invited by a fellow event participant to attend a diabetes camp in the Republic of Macedonia, where he met his fiancé Biljana. Now I know this may be hard news to swallow for the many DOC ladies crushing on Phil, but I think we can all agree that this is great news. I have also had the sincere pleasure of meeting Biljana on a couple of occasions and, trust me, Phil is one lucky guy!
“Biljana is a doctor for the Macedonia Ministry of Health and she asked what I thought of the diabetes program there,” Phil said. “I told her the fact that they did not provide test strips to people with diabetes was a barrier for blood sugar control and it was going to cost the government a lot of money down the road. Within three months she changed the policy. With the passion and the quick work she put into that it was hard not to fall in love with her.”
Now, Phil says, every person with type 1 diabetes in the Republic of Macedonia is guaranteed four test strips per day and people with type 2 diabetes get one to two test strips per day. He and Biljana are planning to travel the world and share the story of what they did in the Republic of Macedonia with a mission to get everyone across the globe equal access to diabetes supplies.
“There are a lot of places in the world where diabetes is still considered a death sentence,” Phil said. “By changing the way the governments view the disease and the models of supply distribution and education I strongly believe that within the next three to five years everybody, anywhere in the world, who is diagnosed with diabetes will get education, supplies and a shot at life.”
After chatting with Phil about his life and accomplishments it’s easy to see why so many people around the world are inspired by him. I have a hunch that he’s going to achieve great success in his next big adventure (marriage) as well! Don’t forget to check back as we will share more about Phil’s journey with Team Type 1 and its empowering efforts in part two of this post.
All the best,
Disclosures: Phil Southerland received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
Team Type 1 has received sponsorship funds from Sanofi US.