Olympian breaks down barriers for diabetics

Twelve kilometers into the Olympic 30-kilometer cross-country ski event, Kris Freeman literally ran out of gas and collapsed. Freeman, an American hoping to medal in the event, shocked everyone when he was found lying in the snow asking for sugar. He is the first Olympic distance athlete who has type 1 diabetes.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. People with type 1 diabetes produce little or no insulin. Insulin allows glucose to move into cells and produce energy.

Distance athletes must be meticulous about balancing energy requirements and extreme physical demands. This challenge is infinitely more difficult for athletes with diabetes.

Technology has made a huge difference in preparing diabetic distance athletes for their quest. The insulin pump is a computerized apparatus that provides a constant infusion of insulin. It is programmed according the expected level of activity.

Dr. Leslie Domalik, Medical Director of The William W. Backus Hospital Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism Center, recalls her experiences at Duke University. She enjoyed the challenge of managing athletes with diabetes.

“In the past, patients would have to regulate their activities based on a fixed insulin dose. We can now alter the insulin based on the patient’s activity level,” she said.

In the case of Freeman, he anticipated a slower pace in the cross-country event and programmed the insulin pump to release more insulin. Unfortunately, the pace was faster and there wasn’t sufficient time to re-program the pump, resulting in a drop in blood sugar and loss of consciousness. A nearby German coach was able to give him some sugar and he eventually completed the race.

Although he didn’t do as well as he would have liked, Kris Freeman’s efforts in long distance sports have successfully broken a previous barrier, and isn’t that what the Olympics are really about?

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