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Playing Hoops Undeterred by Diabetes

College basketball player with T1 succeeds on and off the court

Christian Schlenker can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing basketball. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t managing his blood sugar, either. At age four, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and began taking regular insulin shots; sometimes as many as eight per day. Twelve years ago, he participated in a clinical trial for the delivery device now known as an insulin pump. He has used one ever since.

Despite having to count carbohydrates years before most people even think about their diets, Schlenker hasn’t let diabetes get in his way. “I had a basketball coach in eighth grade once tell me, ‘Don’t ever let your diabetes be an excuse for anything.’ That really stuck with me.” Schlenker has taken that advice, and truly run with it, enjoying a successful high school basketball career that has continued to his current status as a 6’4” sophomore forward on Colorado Christian University’s men’s basketball team.

Staying on Top

Schlenker says having diabetes isn’t the handicap that many may think it is. “Getting diagnosed as young as I did was kind of a blessing in disguise. I’ve never known a time when I wasn’t always testing, managing my insulin,” says Schlenker, noting that his brother, eighteen, was just diagnosed with type 1 and has to make the difficult adjustment much later in life.

Using his insulin pump system, Schlenker carefully adjusts his blood sugar around practices, games, and workouts. “I have to take off my pump to play, so if I start to feel low, I make sure I have some Gatorade or glucose tabs on hand,” he says. Schlenker says he’s felt himself starting to crash during games and had to come out to stabilize his blood sugar. “It’s a pretty weird feeling and it can be hard to focus, that’s for sure.”

But most of the time, he stays on top of it, and after sixteen years, has become adept at keeping himself stabilized, no matter how hard he plays on the court. These days, he sometimes worries more about the knee he had surgery on last year than his blood sugar.

A Blessing in Disguise

“A lot of people have diabetes these days, but it doesn’t have to be a hindrance. Because of the disease, I’ve met so many amazing people and made great friends,” he says. Since age twelve, Schlenker has been traveling from his home in New Mexico to Oregon to attend the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp, a camp for kids with diabetes run by former NBA star center Chris Dudley, himself living with type 1 diabetes. “Chris is so great. He’s not one of those guys who just puts his name on a camp and shows up once. He hangs out with the campers all day, every day,” says Schlenker.

Through the camp, where he is now a counselor, Schlenker has met Dudley and other star athletes who have succeeded despite the disease. He’s also met people such as former NBA star Brian Grant, who fought through early-onset Parkinson’s to play at the highest level and now speaks about his experience, one that Schlenker says gave him perspective on his own situation.

Schlenker’s message to young athletes is the same as his basketball coach once gave him. “Don’t let diabetes get in your way. If you look around, there are a lot of people in the same boat showing you it doesn’t have to be a barrier.”

Justin Park is an award-winning health, sports, and fitness journalist and videographer whose work appears in Men’s Health, Shape, and MSN’s Fitbie. He currently lives in Alma, CO, the country’s highest incorporated town at 10,700 feet. Park 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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