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Kris Freeman: Risking Success with Diabetes

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22 February 2010

Kris Freeman: Risking Success with Diabetes

Whistler Olympic Park, BC (Feb 20)
On Saturday, Kris Freeman took 45th place in the Men’s 30 kilometer pursuit cross-country ski race. Freeman is the first Olympic endurance athlete with Type 1 diabetes. At the 11.25 km mark of the race, Freeman was just 6.2 seconds behind the lead. On the 4th lap of the race his blood sugar crashed and he “stopped and laid on the ground for a moment." Fortunately a German coach saw Freeman and ran to his side - giving him some Gatorade and some “goo” (glucose gel) and Freeman managed to get up and finish the race.

It’s all about calculated risk for people with insulin dependent or type 1 diabetes. We might have the technology that allows us to calibrate the exact amount of insulin required to do almost anything--swim 500 meters, run a marathon or cross country ski a 30 kilometer race. But it all comes down to trial and error. Sometimes it all goes wrong, and the amount of insulin in our bodies overtakes our ability to move or to think and we just have to stop. It is called a hypoglycemic reaction and it is the most threatening aspect of managing insulin dependent diabetes. Some of the symptoms felt during a hypo include confusion, dizziness, pounding heart, racing pulse, trembling, weakness, anxiety, poor concentration and finally passing out, if you don’t get glucose into your body (to refuel your cells) right away.

It must have been an earth shattering disappointment for Kris Freeman, but I have to hand it to him. He did what many type 1’s do everyday when we have a hypo – although under less extreme circumstances – the best of us get up and we don’t quit. I have had moments too – as a teenager competing in track and field and letting the team down by not being able to complete my sprint because of a hypo; as a young professional having to excuse myself from the podium and the wide-eyed audience because I needed a coke or some candy for my “condition,” and finally as a mother, who has to explain to her young daughter why she must open a can of juice without buying it in the supermarket (Mom, they will arrest you!) or risk passing out in the aisle. I never quit sprinting in high school or enjoying speaking publicly or being honest with my daughter about my diabetes.

I would also never compare myself to Kris Freeman. I am not a world class athlete who has spent most of her life training to compete in elite competitions qualifying for the Olympic Winter Games. But I do have an idea what his body’s stress response was on that fourth lap. Insulin is a dangerous drug, and if you don’t get the simple carbohydrates into your bloodstream during a hypoglycemic reaction immediately, you will pass out. I am certain Freeman felt the hypo coming on – but how could he give up on his chance for an Olympic medal before his body did? He may have pushed his own physical limitations until he had to stop and lie down. That’s what happens – you just can’t go any further – as if the earth falls away from under your feet. I can only imagine the deafening sound of the passing skis rushing by Freeman’s head in the snow because everything is more intense (sounds, colors, feelings) when a hypo occurs. It’s possible that he may have looked around for help and gave up, because vision often becomes tunneled and vague – like the reverse negative of a photograph and that’s when fear steps in… but I am certain he had one thought and one thought only – I NEED GLUCOSE -- in any liquid form, and getting into his body as quickly and easily as possible. As Freeman’s blood sugar began to crawl back up and he brushed the snow off his legs, I wonder if he felt regret and vulnerability, perhaps bad luck and some embarrassment --magnified by the millions of viewers and fans, journalists and coaches who might have been shocked by what happened. But Freeman stood up and finished the race.

Kris Freeman is a hero, not because he is an Olympic athlete. No, I am a fan because he has not given up. A few days before the cross country racing began, he told Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on The Today Show, “One of the very first things people told me is what I couldn’t do… that I couldn’t be an Olympic Cross country skier. I worked with my doctors and proved them wrong.”

There will be other races like the Men's 50 km race February 28th, and I’ll be one of his fans right behind him hoping he’ll get a gold, silver or bronze. He deserves it.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” TS Eliot

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