The American Diabetes Association estimates 30 million Americans, adults and children, are diagnosed with diabetes and 86 million have pre-diabetes. But of those 116 million Americans, only one has competed in the Olympic Games while managing the chronic disease.
Kris Freeman, a true diabetes success story, is a cross-country skier, member of the U.S. ski team and Lilly Diabetes partner. He shares his journey of triumph and perseverance in hopes of spreading his message that life does not stop when diabetes surfaces.
“I don’t identify myself as a diabetic. I identify myself as a ski racer,” said Freeman.
A New Hampshire native who grew up in a town with 10-kilometer cross-country ski trails and an alpine slope, Freeman began skiing and competing at the young age of five. At 15, Freeman won his first Jr. Nationals—a feat made when he says he didn’t realize at the time that third best in town meant third best in the nation.
In 2000, Freeman was given the opportunity to train full time with the U.S. Ski Team for the Olympics. At the age of 19 and prior to his first Winter Olympics, a routine blood test with the U.S. Ski Team came back abnormal and Freeman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
Freeman was told competing at the Olympic level was no longer possible, since up until then it had not been done. He was told his dreams were over.
Despite the grim news, Freeman was undeterred because he believed with education and the technological advances, nothing was impossible. A true marker of his champion character, he trained the afternoon of his diagnosis and sought physicians who believed in his dream.
“What I liked about [my doctor] is that he was very cautious, but he wasn’t afraid to try new things,” said Freeman. “We came up with different protocols for all the many different things that I do for training and took a scientific approach. But no one had competed at an Olympic level, so I was a bit of a guinea pig and we had to do a lot of trial and error.”
Learning as much as he could about the disease and how to balance glucose levels while exercising is critical, says Freeman. The disease does not affect him during training, but it does affect his preparation for training. For example, he has to eat specific foods at specific times with specific insulin amounts all predetermined by his training and energy level.
“You have to learn a lot about your body, about how it responds to different stresses in different situations and not get frustrated when things don’t go perfectly the first time,” said Freeman.
By learning about physiology, managing his disease and working hard, Freeman acheived a fate unthinkable by many physicians and competed in his first Winter Olympics in 2002. However, his impressive career of being an Under 23 World Champion, 17 time National Champion and four-time Olympian has not been without hardship.
In 2010 at the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, Freeman collapsed during a 30-kilometer cross-county race due to low glucose levels. But, champion as he is, Freeman drank a sports drink and finished the race. After the incident, he began wearing a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor and has not collapsed during a race since.
“Having competed in four Olympics has been a childhood dream come true. Having done it with diabetes does not change the way I feel about my accomplishments. Diabetes is something that I have to deal with. The best way to not let it impact my life is to maintain a glucose level as close to normal as possible,” said Freeman.
Freeman’s advice for other athletes, outdoors hobbyist and anyone with the disease is to make an assessment of what they wish to accomplish and research the available management options and devices to find one they believe will best fit their lifestyle. Alongside his continuous glucose monitor, Freeman uses an Omnipod insulin pump and insulin log to monitor and manage his diabetes. He also recommends a specific diet to fit what people want to accomplish and learning how the disease affects the body.
“This is a difficult disease,” said Freeman, “but it is a fully manageable one.”
A day of training entails an early rise and training two to three hours roller skiing or running for a distance between 20 and 40 miles. After breaking for four to five hours, he trains for another hour or two.
He shares his story with us this November, proclaimed both National Diabetes Month and American Diabetes Month (ADM) to remind people that with education, proper care and a regulated diet, life does not need to be impacted by diabetes.
The ADA envisions a life free of diabetes and, according to their website, ADM “is an important element in this effort, with programs designed to focus the nation’s attention on diabetes and the many people who are impacted by the disease.”
This November (and all year long), people can contribute to the fight for a diabetes-free world by making donations to organizations or participating in fundraising events.
In October, Obama called on all Americans to participate in awareness-raising activities about diabetes.
He said, “… let us honor those we have lost to diabetes by pledging our full support for those currently living with it, and let us reinvigorate our resolve to find a cure. Together, by drawing on the inherent ingenuity and innovation of our people, we can advance the cause of treating this disease and safeguard the gift of a long, happy, and healthy life for all of America’s daughters and sons.”
Freeman has spent years raising awareness about diabetes by sharing his story at different expos and events, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and at the Friends For Life Conference. Since 2002, he has been partnered with Lilly Diabetes, the company which introduced the world’s first commercial insulin in 1923, and he is a Lilly Camp Care ambassador who has visited summer camps for children with diabetes since 2004. Freeman is a great example that hard work pays off and to not let anyone stand in the way of your dreams.
“I think that a person with diabetes can do anything that someone who does not have diabetes can do…more than anything I want to see people to live the lives that they’ve always wanted to and not let diabetes limit them,” said Freeman.
Currently, Freeman is training for the World Cup in Finland and has his sights on competing in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. To prepare for the Olympics he trains for approximately 900 hours a year and will race on the World Cup and North American Cup tours from November through March. After participating in his fifth Olympics, Freeman plans to hang up the skis.
Photo: Freeman at the 2012 Austrian National Championships, where he was victorious. Courtesy of Green Room Communications.