In Andover, New Hampshire, Kris Freeman grew up with cross-country skiing. At the age of one, Kris' father would ski and pull Kris behind him in a sled. Soon after, Kris was skiing on his own. And now, at the age of 21, he is a member of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, ranked 3rd in the nation, and is one of the youngest cross-country skiers to compete at the Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Just 16 months ago, Freeman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. This is a disorder in which the body does not make insulin—a hormone that helps the body convert food into energy. Without insulin, glucose (sugar) from food cannot enter cells, and glucose builds up in the blood. Body tissues become starved for energy. Treatment includes multiple insulin injections per day, as well as careful dietary choices, exercise, and regular monitoring of blood sugar levels.
Since his diagnosis, Freeman has finished among the top three in four major competitions, and he is preparing for his trip to Salt Lake City to compete with the world's best cross-country skiers. As you can see, diabetes hasn't slowed Kris Freeman down. Here's what he has to say about being an athlete with diabetes.
In September of 2000, not long after I joined the national team, I had a routine monthly blood test. My blood glucose level was twice the normal level. I was immediately referred to an endocrinologist. I was very reluctant to go see this specialist; I didn't know what diabetes was and I felt fine. But I did go, and within 5 minutes, the endocrinologist diagnosed me with type 1 diabetes mellitus.
None that I recognized before the diagnosis. Before that blood test, I had been training hard every day and racing well, and I felt fine. But when the endocrinologist told me about the symptoms, I recognized that I had some of them. I was usually up several times a night to urinate, and my vision would get blurry after a high-carbohydrate meal.
The doctor told me that I could "probably" continue to ski. I didn't like that word "probably" at all. I was pretty down for several months and somewhat in denial. But I did start treatment right away. Within a week, I was feeling better. My sleeping improved and I no longer had blurry vision after meals.
I take 3-5 doses of Humalog per day. That is a rapid-acting insulin that I can take right at mealtime. I also take one dose of NPH, a longer-acting insulin at night before going to bed. I am careful about my diet, but not overly strict. I can adjust the amount of insulin I inject at the time of a meal, so I can take more or less if I eat differently than normal.
As an athlete, I've always been pretty conscious of what I eat. I met with a dietitian when I was first diagnosed, and she thought I had a good handle on what I need to eat. I can usually look at my meals and estimate the amount of carbohydrates in them. Then I can determine how much insulin I'll need to take.
Some doctors recommended that I take the season off, but neither my coaches nor I thought this was a good idea. I am on the same training schedule as before my diagnosis, and have been racing really well. I haven't had any low blood sugar problems or other side effects.
I have gone all over the world with the national team, and diabetes hasn't interfered with that. I just have to be flexible. The Humalog Pen that I use to inject my insulin is perfect. It's very portable, and I can take it just a few minutes before or after a meal, so I don't need to worry so much about eating at specified times. Also, since I can adjust the amount of insulin, I also don't have to worry about exactly what I'm eating.
I like to have some familiar foods with me, so I often bring energy bars when I travel; I know exactly what is in them (calories, carbohydrates, protein, etc.).
Don't give up. You can still do what you want to do. It's certainly an inconvenience, but you just need to be flexible. With the modern treatments that are available, there's nothing that can stand in your way.
It took me a little time to find the right insulin dosages, but now, with my insulin, eating habits, and exercise routine, my hemoglobin A1C (a long-term measure of blood sugar levels) is within the normal, non-diabetic range.