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Racing Hard: NASCAR’s Ryan Reed

Young driver with T1 diabetes on the track to success

Cars and the road to NASCAR stardom were moving fast for Ryan Reed, until diabetes almost brought his career ­– and his health – to a screeching halt. In the final laps of the 154-lap October Classic race at the Bullring in Las Vegas in 2010, Reed had a commanding lead, as he often had during his rookie season in the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series.

“People knew we were the guys to beat. We were winning races, and leading a ton of laps. It felt like nothing could knock me down,” says the racer, now eighteen. The October Classic was no different. “I had a good margin on second place. Next thing I knew, I was way out of it. A car just took me out … it seemed like I rammed into the back of him.”

The race was not filmed, so Ryan couldn’t see what happened on lap 140… and he couldn’t remember. After that scary incident, setbacks continued; over the coming months, Ryan lost weight and felt fatigued when working out. Suddenly, the “untouchable” teen didn’t feel so invincible. “I didn’t have that edge like before,” he said.

In February 2011, Reed learned why – he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. And it came with news from doctors who said he couldn’t race anymore.

Reed wouldn’t believe it. “I said, you know what, someone must be able to help me compete even with this disease,” he says. He was right. Reed enlisted the help of Anne Peters, MD, director of the Clinical Diabetes Program at the University of Southern California.

“To me, it actually goes back to [Olympic swimmer] Gary Hall, Jr.,” Peters says, adding “Hall had been diagnosed with type 1 before the Sydney Olympics Games in 2000, and was told he couldn’t swim competitively because no one could guarantee that he could get glucose to muscle.”

“Athletes need a normal amount of sugar in their blood, and a lot in their muscles,” she says. “Balancing that with insulin is difficult to do under the best of circumstances. These people are pushing their bodies to a level that people with diabetes who are not professional athletes don’t.”

Despite the challenges, Peters had success helping Hall manage his T1; he competed in two Olympics after his diagnosis, winning three gold medals. But racecars were a different story, Peters says. The challenge, in part, is the different nature of the two sports. “It isn’t just a person swimming alone in a pool, but driving a car at high speeds,” Peters points out, “If they have a problem, forget about winning or losing. They could crash into other cars.”

But Peters felt confident she could help Reed continue to race. “She said, ‘well, are you going to do what I tell you to do? Then I believe you’ll be in a race car,'” Reed says of his first meeting with Peters.

Just a few months later, she was proven right. Reed is now racing in the ARCA Racing Series, a minor league circuit that races at Daytona, Talladega, and other superspeedways, and is just two steps from NASCAR’s premier series, the Sprint Cup.

On race day, Reed wears a continuous glucose monitor. “As a driver, you have lots of gauges – water temperature, oil temp, RPMs – things you’re constantly looking at to make sure the car isn’t having potential failures,” he says. “[The continuous monitor] is a gauge for my body. It’s just like checking one of my car gauges.”

Diabetes has changed Reed outside the car, as well. Since his diagnosis, he’s lost thirty pounds and gained ten pounds of muscle. But the biggest change may be inside – the once-cocky teen racer now devotes his time and voice to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) through his own charity, Ryan’s Mission.

“People are really drawn to him once they hear his story, he’s overcome so many obstacles,” says Jaime Grodsky, manager of entertainment partnerships for JDRF. “Everybody has dreams. Everybody has goals. They’re seeing how someone like Ryan can reach them; we couldn’t have written a better script for him.”

Reed has appeared at events through his local JDRF chapter and even pushed his local chapter to get additional funds, Grodsky says. His message is not just that kids can do what they dream of, but that they shouldn’t be embarrassed by their diabetes.

“Let’s make this thing not taboo,” he says. “If you’re typing in your numbers or giving yourself a shot, explain it. Whatever you’re doing, talk about it. Don’t be embarrassed by it.”

And for less-prominent athletes – elite or recreational, racecar driver or daily jogger – Peters says there’s hope, too. It helps to meet the right people and ask the right questions. Peters recommends connecting with local athletes in fitness-oriented organizations such as InsulinIndependence to ask for recommendations on doctors who are especially sensitive to the needs of an athlete, as well as an aspiring athlete.

“Once you’re with the doctor, don’t be afraid to ask for the care you need. You want a doctor who says, ‘you’ll teach me about you and your sport, and I will teach you about managing your blood sugar for it,'” says Peters. “With the help of a great team – especially an attentive doctor and a dietitian – there’s almost no sport you can’t play.”

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. Greg Presto 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. 

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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