Twenty years ago, swimmer Gary Hall, Jr. competed in his first Summer Games, in Atlanta. He earned two silver medals for the individual 50m and 100m freestyle swims, and two team gold medals for the men’s 4x100m freestyle and medley relays. It turned out to be just the beginning of his swimming dominance.
What’s even more remarkable is that in 1999, one year before his second Summer Games, in Sydney, Hall was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He did not let that stop him, however, and won the gold for the individual 50m freestyle – a feat he repeated four years later in Athens.
Over his career, Hall won an astonishing ten individual and team medals (five gold, three silver and two bronze). The champion swimmer, who was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame1 in 2012, is now in another race that he feels is just as epic: the race to improve life for all athletes living with diabetes.
That mission has taken Hall, now 41 years old, around the world to speak about athletes and diabetes. He has testified before Congress about the need to fund diabetes research. He has also spoken to thousands of children living with diabetes in an effort to inspire them to reach for their goals. And most recently, he traveled to the Vatican, where he joined an elite group who had an audience with Pope Francis about the importance of diabetes research.
No matter the audience, Hall is pushing for better tools for athletes who live with diabetes, and also a better understanding of how to use those tools. Essentially, he wants a better understanding of how much an athlete living with diabetes may truly be able to accomplish.
When Hall looks back on his three Summer Games appearances – two of which, it’s worth repeating, occurred after his T1 diagnosis – he remembers how difficult it was with what was available at that time.
“It was a challenge; there was a lot of extra fluctuation,” he said of his blood sugar levels during swim training and racing. He remembered how lows would negatively impact not just the particular moment in time, but the following hours of training as well. “I was testing as many as 24 times a day; I was constantly trying to find that right place to be,” he said. Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) are a game changer for today’s athletes, Hall added. “I think if I had things like a CGM, I could have been way more effective in training.”
Even more change is needed, however. Hall said he is encouraged by the sharing that athletes living with diabetes are doing via forums, where they swap tips and ideas and help brainstorm with one another, and where – most importantly – they help gather data on how diabetes may impact performance. What has to happen now, Hall said in an interview, is this: “We must take the next step. We must take that gathered data and make it translational.”
In other words, he wants to find the solutions to help all athletes better perform in a simpler way. To that end, Hall is working closely with the American College of Sports Medicine to try to make that happen. He also works with T1D Exchange, where data is gathered, studied and then put into action to help all.
There’s more that Hall wants, too. He wants all coaches to know that kids living with diabetes may be able to compete at a high level. “I hear so many sad stories about a kid who is benched because he or she is seen as a liability,” he said.
Hall added that in most cases the coaches may mean well; however, they have little or no training, and are concerned about their athletes going low. “Kids are politely sidelined and then they fall out of the sport. That has to change.”
Sharing his story and successes, he believes, goes far. With his Summer Games and podium days behind him, one has to wonder if Hall has that same focus to maintain excellent diabetes health. Hall does not hesitate with a response. He said he has a much bigger goal now: staying healthy and happy for his wife, Elizabeth, and their two young children, Gigi and Charlie.
“I have an obligation to my children and my family to remain healthy,” he said. “What bigger goal is there than that?”
Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes. Her six books include The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Juvenile Diabetes and Raising Teens with Diabetes: A Survival Guide for Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. Gary Hall, Jr. is Member and Alliance Manager at T1D Exchange. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and/or interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
1U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame is a registered trademark of the United States Olympic Committee
© 2016 The DX: The Diabetes Experience