For those of us who are growing tired of Gary Hall, Jr. as the cocky, Type 1 diabetes olympian and self-proclaimed diabetes authority (even though some of us have decades more under our belts with no complications), we now have a Type 1 Winter Olympic contestant to represent the U.S. in Torino. Kris Freeman is a welcome addition to the Type 1 "family". I am hoping he will earn a medal in cross-country skiing, something the U.S. team seldom excels in relative to the Scandinavians who usually take the medals for this event!
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 25, he is a member of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, ranked among the top in the nation, and was also one of the youngest cross-country skiers to compete at the Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Earlier this month, Freeman re-affirmed his status as the number-one cross-country skier in the country after adding two more titles to his resume. Freeman won the 15-km classic and 30-km pursuit events at the U.S. Cross-Country Championships held in Soldier Hollow, UT. With these accomplishments, Freeman, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in September 2000, proves again that people with diabetes can lead full and active lifestyles.
Type 1 diabetes is a disorder in which the body does not make insulin-the hormone necessary to help the body convert food into energy because the insulin-producing beta cells are mistakenly destroyed by the immune system. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented. Without insulin, glucose (sugar) from food cannot enter cells, and glucose builds up in the blood. Body tissues become starved for energy. Diabetes is a chronic disease with no cure, but Freeman knows it does not mean the end of his career. With the help of this health care team, Kris Freeman manages a grueling training regimen while also managing his diabetes. Treatment includes multiple insulin injections per day, as well as careful dietary choices, exercise, and regular monitoring of blood sugar levels.
But when Freeman was first diagnosed with diabetes, he thought his skiing days and dreams of an Olympic medal were over. At first, he had trouble accepting what the disease would mean to him. "Most people who get diagnosed with diabetes have spent 2 weeks in the hospital, and they're relieved to get the diagnosis," he explains, grimacing as he thinks of the physical effects of sugary blood. "For me, it was like, 'Fine, leave me alone.'"
Despite being depressed and "somewhat in denial" about the disease, he started reading up on it with characteristic tenacity, and it wasn't long before he saw his way back into the sport. "I did a lot of reading and a lot of research, and I found some encouraging things. I saw things like the diabetic marathon record, and I thought, 'Well, that's pretty pathetic. I'm diabetic, and I could break that right now.'" So he kept training. "The Olympics were my dream," says Freeman. "I wanted to be at 2002. I was focused more than I should have on that event. I was going to get there, and I didn't care how." Freeman is now poised to be the first American since 1976 to medal in cross-country skiing -- a sport typically dominated by Scandinavian and Central European athletes.
When asked about his diabetes management routine, Freeman said "I am very disciplined about my diet, my insulin therapy, and my glucose testing regimen." Freeman consumes up to 5,000 carefully-planned calories to keep his blood sugar at non-diabetic levels, especially during competition. He uses a Lilly Humalog pen to dose his rapid-acting insulin. "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. Since being diagnosed, I have never had a hemoglobin A1C test above 5.8. It is usually around 5.2. I have to keep my blood sugar under strict control to compete at a world-class level. I only eat food that I need to fuel my body. On a typical training day, I know how much and what type of food to eat before I work out. I usually eat yogurt, granola, and oatmeal. I will test my blood sugar level shortly before starting my workout. Once I begin my workout, I generally consume about 45 grams of carbohydrate per hour. On a race day I eat the same breakfast. However, it is even more important that my blood sugar is under perfect control in a race because I can do little to correct it once I start. I always start my races with ideal blood sugar." Freeman said.
"I will test my blood sugar repeatedly on race mornings, sometimes up to 12 times. If small adjustments are needed, I will eat carbs or take insulin appropriately. In longer races, my coaches will hand me a water bottle full of energy drink at the tops of hills right before I descend. That way I can drink while going down the hill without losing time and keep my blood sugar stable. This is also done by the rest of the racers in long events. I will not allow diabetes to put me at a disadvantage when I race. The disease is just one more thing I have to deal with in my preparation."
When asked what he would tell a child just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Kris said "I would tell him or her to learn as much as possible about the disease and the treatments available. Educating yourself is the key to success with diabetes." He also told another interviewer "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."
As part of his commitment to helping others who have diabetes, Freeman serves as the ambassador of Eli Lilly and Company's (Lilly) LillyforLife program, which celebrates the inspiring achievements of people of all ages who live with diabetes. In 2001, Freeman became a spokesperson for Lilly, the maker of the insulin he takes for his very survival.
"We are thrilled that Kris continues to achieve such excellence, and we all hope the best for him in the upcoming Olympics," said Ron Hoven, diabetes care marketing director, Eli Lilly and Company. "He is a shining example of how people with diabetes can lead very normal, and in this case, exceptional lives."
Source: Compiled from various news stories, including Lilly News, Ski Racing, Swedish Medical Center, JDRF Kids Online, and NBC Olympics.