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Swinging for the Stars

Pro golfer Kelli Kuehne on the power of mentorship

Golf is considered a sport that requires extremely high concentration and mental effort. As Bobby Jones, famous golfer and co-founder of the Masters Golf Tournament, once said, “You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about.” So incorporating blood sugar management into the mix might seem to make sinking those high-pressure shots impossible. But Kelli Kuehne has excelled on the LPGA tour for over fourteen years, and has never yet blamed a poor score on her type 1 diabetes. “Low blood sugar doesn’t help anyone, but it’s never an excuse,” she says. “I always felt it was my responsibility as a person living with diabetes to be aware of it, and make the necessary changes.”

But sometimes, those changes and adjustments didn’t come fast enough, and Kuehne might suffer a lost hole as her blood sugar leveled back out. “I would have loved it if I could have eaten something and fixed my blood sugar in one minute,” she says. “But it usually took a good half-hole or a full hole. That’s why I think it’s so important for people with diabetes to recognize the signs,” she continues. “To recognize how you feel and to make adjustments before it may become a problem.” Kuehne believes that doing her best to stay on top of her highs and lows also helped give her laser focus on the course that was, ultimately, an advantage.

“Diabetes made me pay attention to everything and understand why I feel this way, or feel that way,” she says. That attention to detail “definitely translated over to my golf.” And on the golf course, Kuehne hasn’t needed any excuses: she was one of the most successful amateurs of all time, winning three USGA titles, including the 1994 US Junior Girls, and the 1995 and 1996 US Women’s Amateur; the only golfer in history to have won those events in consecutive years. At the University of Texas, Kuehne was a first-team All-American. Her pro golf career began in 1998, and Kuehne won her first championship, the Corning Classic, the following year. Since then, she has gone on to win over $2,000,000 in career earnings and induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

Kuehne coped with her diabetes on the course by learning to love a regular routine. Her mantra: Find what works for you and stick with it. “You learn and understand cause and effect,” she says. “If you eat an apple, know what it does to your body. For me, I have certain foods I can eat while competing, and I know how they work for me. I learned all that by trial and error.”

Kuehne also believes in having a good team behind her to help manage her blood sugar. In particular, she worked closely with Tina Bonci, co-director of the Division of Athletic Training/Sports Medicine for Intercollegiate Athletics of the University of Texas, who inspired her to approach her blood sugar management with the same focus she brought to golf. For Kuehne, there were benefits to having such a strong mentor and supporter behind her. “I had a lot fewer peaks and valleys on the course,” she says, and she believes that Bonci’s insistence that she listen to her body and focus on her health helped her vault from number 124 on the tour earnings list in her first year to number sixteen in her sophomore season.

And now it’s her turn to give. Kuehne hopes to provide the same type of inspiration for young kids, newly diagnosed with diabetes, whether they’re golfing or not. She is active in Fit4D, a program created in partnership with the JDRF, which pairs younger people living with diabetes with mentors and lifestyle coaches. In addition, Kuehne has worked on other events with the JDRF, as well as with the American Diabetes Association.

“I’m happy to work for any organization, as long as we’re raising money and trying to find a cure,” she says. Kuehne feels blessed to have lived her dream as a pro golfer, and wants other young athletes with type 1 diabetes to have the same opportunities. “Diabetes is not a reason to not be successful,” adds Kuehne. “It should not keep you from chasing your dreams.”

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. Presto 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.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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