Being an elite athlete requires more than raw talent. It takes perseverance to push through lengthy, grueling practices and enough passion to trade free time for hours spent at competitions. Things get a bit more complicated when you add diabetes to the mix. To stand out, athletes must balance training with blood glucose management. They need dedication to the craft and to their diabetes. It’s difficult, but not impossible—just look at the young athletes on the following pages. All three have type 1 diabetes. And all three are at the top of their game.
>> Watch Chris and Emily in action! Click here to see Emily's impressive gymnastics routines and to view Chris's winning karate tournament.
Age 15 | Ocean Springs, Miss.
Gymnast Tony Maiolatesi doesn’t consider diabetes a weakness—just another part of his life that requires dedication. “I have to catch up on it and worry about it 24-7 whereas other kids don’t,” he says. “But it never held me back.” His standing as the top male tumbler in the United States in his age group during 2010 and this year is a testament to the fact. To date, he’s won nine national championship titles, including two gold medals and a bronze at the 2010 U.S. Junior Olympics.
Anyone who questions Tony’s determination need only look at his training schedule: He practices for three hours twice a week at his home gym and another two times a week at a gym in New Orleans, a two-hour drive from his house. While there, he doesn’t just push himself on the trampoline or mat; he keeps close watch on his blood glucose levels. “Being diabetic and doing sports is definitely doable, but you just have to be on top of it so you don’t hurt yourself,” he says. For Tony, that means checking his blood glucose regularly and keeping fast-acting sources of glucose on hand at all times to treat dips.
While blood glucose levels a little on the high side don’t hurt his performance, Tony says he has to watch for lows during practice and tournaments. “I eat a higher-carb meal before I go out. If I’m a little low, I eat some fruit or [drink] apple juice,” he says. He does his best to prevent lows during events, but there are times when he needs a break to tend to his blood glucose. “I have been low during ODP [Olympic Development Program] tryouts,” he says. “I crammed food . . . before I had to compete.”
Despite the extra work to manage his diabetes, Tony says it’s helped him get where he is now. “My mom taught me never to use diabetes as an excuse,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have this determination [if I didn’t have diabetes]. It’s given me motivation to show people I can do everything someone without [diabetes] can do.”
Age 12 | Waterford, Mich.
By the time Chris Gorham was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8, he had five years of karate behind him. “When I was first diagnosed, I thought of giving up,” he says. The feeling was short-lived, and in a matter of weeks Chris was back at practice. “I didn’t [give up], and good things kept happening.” Among those good things: a handful of state championship wins and silver and bronze medals at the 2010 World Kickboxing Council World Championships in Portugal.
Taking second and third in the tournament would be a triumph without diabetes, but Chris did it while monitoring his blood glucose levels along the way. “When I go to compete, I can’t just jump out and not eat. I have to eat or my blood sugar will go low,” he says. But it’s not nearly that easy. While his practices start and finish at a set time, competition schedules are less rigid. He may arrive at 9 a.m. and fight at 1 p.m.—or he might have to wait until 4. The unpredictable schedule makes caring for his diabetes even more complex: He needs to guess whether to correct high blood glucose levels and risk going low if he’s suddenly called to fight or to hold off and risk being too high.
Ensuring normal blood glucose levels is also important when it comes to his performance. “If [my blood glucose is] high or low, it impacts me,” he says. “If it’s high, I’m not as focused. If I’m low, I get very confused.” When he suspects he’s low during a fight, Chris calls a time-out to check. But his goal is to avoid a low in the first place. “I definitely check my blood before. And then, let’s say it’s off, I’ll definitely take something,” he says. While at practice, Chris checks his blood glucose every half hour to make sure he’s safe.
He says the greatest lesson he has learned from his diabetes diagnosis is the importance of persistence. “Until you’re living it, you don’t know what [kids with diabetes] can accomplish,” says his mother, Dawn Gorham. “And to see him there with people chanting, ‘USA, USA,’ was amazing. To see him up on the stand with the American flag draped around him—I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Age 13 | Lafayette, La.
Emily LeBert’s training schedule is rigorous. Leading up to a gymnastics competition, she trains for three hours five days a week. Yet she hasn’t let her diabetes hold her back since her 2009 diagnosis. “She wasn’t giving up. When we got her home [from the hospital], she was ready to go back to the gym,” says Mary LeBert, Emily’s mom. “She does it all herself. She knows how many carbs are in pizza. She knows how many carbs are in a hamburger. She knows what she can and can’t eat. She is very disciplined about it.”
The good control has paid off. Emily competes at the state, regional, and national levels in tumbling and trampoline. And since 2007 she’s made the U.S. Junior Olympic gymnastics team every year, nabbing the gold in both categories the past two years in national competition. While much of her success can be attributed to talent and hard work, Emily’s attention to diabetes management plays a role, too. “Whenever I’m competing, it helps to keep my [blood glucose] levels down. When my levels are over 300, I space out,” she says. “When my levels are good, I do much better.”
But paying close attention to her blood glucose levels comes at a price. “I’m usually one of the first people to compete. After we warm up, I have to run and check my blood sugar and then go,” she says. Without checking, she would risk low blood glucose while competing. “If I get low at a meet, the whole meet has to stop and wait for me to get back up,” she says.
Still, she says the dedication to her health is worth it. “I think it’s pretty cool because people are learning to think of me as a role model because I have diabetes and I’m living my dream,” Emily says. She thinks it’s something other kids with diabetes can accomplish, too. “You have to work hard and think of the positives. You have to keep your head up high. If you try hard, you’ll get there.”
As for her future plans, Emily says she has her sights set on the Olympics. “That’s my one dream,” she says. “I have to keep my eye on it.”