Life StoryOct/Nov 2008 Issue

A Champion for Diabetics

Living Without editor Alicia Woodward talks with 5-time Olympic gold medalist, swimmer Gary Hall, Jr., about the diagnosis that changed his life. Hall discovered that he had type 1 diabetes in March of 1999.

Olympic Medals
1996  2 gold, 2 silver
2000  2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze
2004  1 gold, 1 bronze

Gary Hall, Jr. stepping up onto the starting blocks at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Living Without: What was it like to learn you had diabetes?
Hall: I was shocked, incredibly upset and discouraged. I couldn’t believe it. I was a 25-year-old athlete with no family history of the disease. Diabetes knows no boundaries and can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, race or nationality.

You were diagnosed when you were on the world stage as an Olympic athlete. It must have been a difficult transition.
It’s not an easy adjustment for anyone, no matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished. Making a lifestyle change is one of the most challenging things a person can do. But once that change is made, it gets easier. The toughest time is that initial phase when you’re first learning how to live with your condition.

How did that go for you?
There was a lot of trial and error, learning to gauge how much insulin I needed after eating, after exercising. It took some time. I remember how shocked I was after eating one of those fast-food breakfast muffins. I had to give myself as much insulin as if I’d eaten a huge, piled-high plate of spaghetti. With diabetes, you learn pretty quickly how hard your pancreas has to work to keep your blood levels steady and the way we tax our bodies by our food choices.

How has your diet changed?
I thought I ate well but after my diagnosis I realized how many sodas and candy bars I consumed. I did get cravings but it didn’t take long to break the junk food habit. Now I’m more selective. It doesn’t mean abstinence from desserts and treats. I eat them occasionally. I also began eating more organic and whole foods.

Eating right is expensive—and so is the medication.Some people just can't afford it. That’s why the Gary Hall Jr. Foundation for Diabetes supports medical clinics that treat uninsured patients. Right now, we’re working to provide scholarships for underprivileged kids to attend diabetic summer camps. I’ll be able to visit the camps and work with the kids. We want kids to know that they’re not alone in dealing with
their disease.

You are really reaching out to others with diabetes.
It's my passion. Ever since I was diagnosed, I've tried to be active at every level, from visiting with parents and kids at a picnic to testifying on Capitol Hill for more research funding. There are 20 million Americans living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. That's a huge group of people who need help and I count myself one of them.

After you were diagnosed in 1999, doctors said you wouldn’t be competitive again. Yet you went on to win two more Olympic gold medals in 2000 and another gold in 2004.
Diabetes is a very serious disease—but there is a message of hope. This condition can be controlled if you eat right, exercise and take your medication.

There’s a saying that real champions aren’t determined by their victories but by how they deal with obstacles. And that’s true. Everyone is dealing with something. It’s how you handle it that determines your mettle.

Any thoughts about not qualifying for the Beijing Olympics?
I went out, I put everything I had into it and I enjoyed it. We need to care, we need to try, we need to lay it all out on the line—and that’s what I did

Visit www.garyhalljrfoundation.org for more information about the Gary Hall Jr. Foundation for Diabetes.

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