Anyone can have diabetes, including athletes! While type 1 diabetes may affect athletes just like everyone else, sport does not leave them at zero risk of developing type 2 diabetes either.
You’d be surprised that many sportsmen and sportswomen actually live with diabetes. Diabetes management indeed puts an extra challenge on a professional athletic career.
But the chronic condition did not stop any of these athletes from becoming World champions, climbing the highest peaks, or bringing Olympic gold medals back home. Just like it should not stop you or your diabetic kids from living the dream life.
These 10 athletes, tennis men, golf players, swimmers, mountain climbers, cyclists, and others serve as an inspiration for anyone living with diabetes. Their strength, motivation, and courage have taken them to the highest level of their sport, proving that diabetes isn't the boss. You're the boss!
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Athletes with Type 1 Diabetes
Most athletes with diabetes suffer from type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the pancreas makes little or no insulin, causing high blood sugar levels and severe complications. It usually appears during childhood but can also develop during adulthood.
Most athletes with type 1 diabetes have learned to manage their chronic condition since they were kids, although some of them were suddenly diagnosed in the middle of their professional careers. In both cases, T1D has not stopped them from being high-level athletes and winning top competitions!
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Jay Cutler – American Footballer – Type 1 diabetes
Jay Christopher Cutler is a famous American football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 12 seasons. He played for numerous teams including the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, and Miami Dolphins.
Jay Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes halfway through his athletic career in 2008 when he was 25 years old. Thanks to the right treatment, a lot of auto discipline, and a positive attitude, diabetes did not stop him from being one of the best American football players of all time.
The footballer has now retired from his professional sports career, but he’s very involved in diabetes awareness. Among other projects, he partnered with Eli Lilly (diabetes medication and support) and the American Diabetes Association for a program called Touchdowns for Diabetes, raising money for diabetic communities and diabetes camp scholarships.
The message he wants to give to kids with diabetes is that: “you can live with the disease and still live the way you want”. Obviously, he has proven it!
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Pamela Fernandes – Olympic Gold Medal Cyclist – T1D
Pamela Fernandes is less famous than Jay Cutler, but her story isn’t less inspirational. The American cyclist was diagnosed with Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes when she was 4 years old. She became blind at age 21 and had to receive a new kidney in 1987.
Neither diabetes, blindness, nor kidney transplant stopped her from becoming one of the best American athletes. Despite enormous physical challenges, Pamela Fernandes even won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.
Once again, her courage and determination prove that everything is possible with diabetes.
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Patrick Peterson – American Football Player – Type 1
Patrick De’mon Peterson Jr. is another American football player with type 1 diabetes. He played for the Arizona Cardinals and was selected to the Pro Bowl for 8 seasons in the NFL.
Patrick prefers not to talk much about his diabetes and personal issues. He says his diabetes is well under control and his doctors are taking good care of him. Obviously, diabetes did not stop him from becoming one of the best cornerback players!
Will Cross – Mountain Climber athlete – T1D
Will Cross was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1976 when he was 9 years old. At that time, diabetes treatments and insulin therapy were still at their beginning, and Will was told he wouldn’t make it passed 30 years.
Well, guess what? At 36, the former high school principal from Pittsburg became the first person with diabetes to reach the North and South Poles and climb Mont Everest and the highest peak on each continent as part of the Novolog Peaks and Poles Challenge sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
He has also led dangerous and wild expeditions to unmapped places in Greenland, Patagonia, the Sahara Desert, and India. He wears a Tandem insulin pump as well as a Dexcom continuous blood glucose monitor.
Will Cross is one of the greatest inspirations to prove that diabetes does not have to stop you from reaching the top of the World! As a famous member of the T1D community, he partners with Tandem Diabetes on a project called: “What’s your Everest?”, encouraging people with diabetes to live their dreams.
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Scott Verplank – American Golfer – Type 1 diabetes
Despite being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 9, Scott Verplank made it to the highest level of golf, winning 5 GPA Tours and starring in 2 Ryder Cups. Scott wears an insulin pump.
In 2006, he says to a Diabetes Health Magazine interviewer that one of the hardest issues of being an athlete with diabetes was dealing with adrenaline. Adrenaline can considerably raise blood glucose levels. Scott Verplank says he's found a way to keep it under control by injecting insulin on the second hole to compensate for the adrenaline rise.
Diabetes management is very personal, and each individual responds differently to physical exercise, adrenaline, and other external factors that may impact blood sugars. The important thing is to find what works best for you!
Gary Hall, Jr – Swimmer – T1D
Gary Hall Junior is an American Olympic swimmer who won gold and silver medals at the 1996 Atlanta games. In the middle of his career, he was suddenly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. That did not stop him from winning more Olympic medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics!
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Athletes with Type 2 Diabetes
There are not many athletes with Type 2 diabetes, and most of them are diagnosed at a later stage once their professional career is over. Type 2 diabetes' most common risk factors are weight, fat distribution, inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, family history, and others.
Athletes are generally very active and have very little body fat. Besides, their training and coaching usually include very healthy diets. Risks that they develop type 2 diabetes are much lower than for the general population. However, heredity may override lifestyle and some professional athletes do have type 2 diabetes.
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Arthur Ashe – Tennis Player – Type 2 / LADA diabetes
Arthur Ashe was diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. Although the initial diagnosis was that he had type 2 diabetes, retrospectively he may suffer from Latent autoimmune diabetes (LADA). LADA is similar to type 1 diabetes but is a slow-progressive form of it.
Whatever type of diabetes Arthur Ashe has, it did not stop him from winning 3 Grand Slam titles during his athlete career!
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Billy Jean King – Women Tennis Player – Type 2 diabetes
Another tennis player living with type 2 diabetes, Billy Jean King was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, long after her tennis days were over. Besides being physically very active all her life, she could not escape from hereditary diabetes that was part of her family history.
David Boomer Wells – Baseball Player – T2D
David “Boomer” Wells was one of the best baseball pitchers who played 21 seasons in the MLB including for the New York Yankees. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at a later stage. He admits that despite being an athlete, he has struggled with weight and alcohol all his life.
Earl Monroe “The Pearl – Basketball Player – Type 2 Diabetes
Earl “The Pearl” was a professional basketball player until 1980. In 1998, long after he put a stop to his athletic career, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He plays a role in the diabetic community across the US and helps raise awareness with the Diabetes Restaurant Month, a challenge in which participating restaurants have to offer diabetes-friendly menus.
Athletes who’ve made it to the highest levels of their sport despite diabetes are great inspirations for us all! They show that motivation, courage, and strength can offset the difficulties of living with diabetes. What about you? Have you done something you're especially proud of with your diabetes?