Role Models for Being Active With Type 1 Diabetes

(Cyclist Becky Furuta. Image courtesy of Team Novo Nordisk.)

When I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1985 there were no public role models of people living healthy, active lives with diabetes. There were Mary Tyler Moore and Wilford Brimley who were talented actors, but they did not offer the kind of inspiration I was looking for. One of the first questions I asked my doctor was “Will I still be able to play sports?” I was a freshman in high school and a member of the JV field hockey team. I loved everything about field hockey: the green-and-white kilts, the long wooden sticks, the fast pace on the field, and the distinctive smack when the wooden stick connected with the ball. My doctor promised that with careful monitoring, I would still be able to play field hockey. In fact, he told me, being active was very important for people with diabetes.


I wanted to believe my doctor, but I couldn’t find any stories of people with diabetes playing field hockey, or running, or swimming, or biking. (This was pre-Internet days, and my search was limited to the library and magazine racks.) Instead, I found articles about people struggling with complications such as kidney failure, amputations, and blindness. I ignored those stories as best as I could and returned to the field hockey team where I learned to manage my highs and lows through trial and error. It was a worthwhile but lonely endeavor.

Thirty-one years later, I’m slightly envious of those who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes today, because there are so many athletes they can look to for inspiration. That’s why, in these next few blog entries, I’m going to share stories of people who are changing the way we think about diabetes. People who are pushing themselves physically and emotionally to show the world that diabetes will not stand in the way of achieving your goals. These stories will inspire you whether your goal is to run a marathon, compete in a triathlon, climb a mountain, or even just start walking.

Professional cyclist Becky Furuta was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 when she was twenty-eight years old and 20 weeks pregnant with her second child. Diabetes runs in her family, so when she came home from an easy bike ride and guzzled three bottles of water in a row, she knew what was wrong. Furuta was relieved when the doctor told her she had diabetes because it was an easily identifiable problem with a solution. “That afternoon I went for a bike ride to reassure myself that I could still do it.” She hasn’t stopped riding since.

Furuta started riding when she was 13 years old during a time of personal crisis. Her mother was very sick and her father lost his business. “We were homeless for six months,” she says. “I got on my bike to get away. My goal was to ride away from sadness.” Riding offered her escape, and today, as the only female road racer on the elite squad with Team Novo Nordisk, she has ridden her bike all over the world. She races almost every weekend from February through September, usually eight to ten times a month, and uses multiple daily injections, frequent blood glucose testing, and a strict routine to manage her blood sugars. This routine also helps her at home with her two small children. (Read a beautiful essay she wrote about being a mom with Type 1.) When I asked how she checks her sugars during a race she laughed and said “I’m pretty adept on the bike. I can change clothes while I’m riding, I can eat, and I can test my sugars.” Furuta says there are similarities between athletes and people with diabetes. “Athletes have a disposition to control all the variables, and knowingly respond to the things that are beyond control.”

More important than controlling variables is the camaraderie that Furuta says is one of the best parts about being on the team. “We have this unique bond: a love of sports and the shared experience of having diabetes. My teammates don’t let things stand in the way of achieving their goals.”