Olympic champion Gary Hall Jr on swimming with diabetes

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Gary Hall Jr. (48), a ten-time Olympic medalist, says he has no memory of winning the title of world’s fastest swimmer at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. He was a spectator as he watched the moment of his victory on television. Hall Jr. took part in this competition after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and had a severe hyperglycemia event in March 1999.

“I don’t understand why my blood sugar level dropped so much when I was swimming the final leg of the relay 4×100 freestyle. My memory began to fade after I had finished the race. My sugar level at that time was 23 mg/dL. I don’t recall the medal ceremony, where they played the national anthem and raised the flag to give you a medal of honor for your incredible achievement,” he told Happiest Health.

At the height of his swimming career, he was diagnosed at age 24 with type 1 diabetes. He was experiencing excessive thirst, blurry vision, and dizziness. He also lost 20 pounds. His doctors told him that he would not be able to compete at the Olympics because of the loss of 20 pounds.

Swimming and diabetes

His passion was swimming, and it became his career. It was very depressing to be told that you had a chronic disease that could lead to severe complications such as blindness, amputation of lower limbs, circulatory issues, stroke, and renal failure. “It took me a while to understand what diabetes was and how it could be controlled,” says he.

His father was an ophthalmologist who saw cases of Retinopathy. This is a complication of diabetes. Dr Anne Peters and her team treated Hall Jr. He was on the podium of the Olympics with his gold medal one-and-a-half years later. He says, “I couldn’t have returned to swimming and competing without her.”

He was initially unsure about competing, but he did it because he wanted to inspire other children who had the same condition. Since my diagnosis, I have heard stories of kids who were told they could not be on a sports team or attend sleepovers due to their type 1 diabetes. If they were on a team, their coach would view them as a liability. They would be seated on a bench for most of the game or practice. “That’s a pity and I wanted help to stop that,” says he.

Sports challenges

Swimming with type 1 diabetics can be challenging. Blood sugar levels are pushed through the roof by the endorphins and adrenaline that come from performing in front of others. “My goal was to remain hyper-focused when swimming with diabetes. I tested my blood sugar about 20 times per day and at least once an hour using finger prick tests until five minutes prior to the competition. He shares that he could say, “I have done all I can to prepare for my race, and I will put everything aside in the next five minutes.”

Hall Jr. says that he does not have a family history of type 1 diabetes or mysterious deaths. His family has never been misdiagnosed or had any strange conditions. Hall Jr. was a keen athlete who always paid attention to nutrition. “I had to do the carb counting and then try to calculate the insulin dose accordingly. In the trial-and-error learning process, he was “surprised” by certain things, such as how many carbs are in white rice, even a small amount.

He had to visit McDonald’s not long after his diagnosis with a group of 15 swimmers on a trip. As I couldn’t find anything healthy, I had an egg McMuffin for breakfast. “I had to take in so much insulin – more than I would have for a large plate of pasta,” recalls the man.

Hall Jr, a Los Angeles resident, manages his diabetes by monitoring his blood sugar levels regularly and seeing his endocrinologist at least every six months. Hall Jr. says that since he was diagnosed, he doesn’t have any complications.

Supporting the diabetes community

Hall Jr. is part of several communities dedicated to diabetes that help change people’s outlook and remove the stigma surrounding the disease. Hall Jr is also a member of research groups. He hopes that there will be a type 1 diabetes cure one day. There have been great advances in regenerative medicines that can replenish beta cells, create a supply, or rewire immune systems so they don’t see them as bad and kill them. “I’m encouraged and I believe this will eventually lead to a treatment,” he says.

His message to those with diabetes is not to give up and feel discouraged, as this can lead to irreparable damages that are impossible to recover from. He encourages people to talk more about their condition and says they shouldn’t be ashamed or blame themselves or family members for it.

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