Something was wrong. Sean Busby was used to the snow-covered slopes, the frigid temperatures, and the buzz of the crowd—he’d been snowboarding since he was 12 and had competed professionally since he was 16. But at the U.S. National Snowboarding Championships in March 2004, the then 19-year-old was off his game. Months of frequent vomiting, weight loss, and exhaustion were diagnosed as type 2 diabetes shortly after, but the medications didn’t make a difference. By July, Busby’s outlook was bleak. He’d lost sponsors, all but quit his training for the 2010 Olympics, and dropped from 153 to 119 pounds. After nearly a year of glacially wasting away, Busby finally got the correct diagnosis: type 1 diabetes.
“That first shot of insulin was a miracle,” says Busby, now 26. “Having that life put back into my body by that little syringe, I felt normal again. I knew that I could get back into [snowboarding].” He spent the rest of the summer doing two things: working with his medical team to understand diabetes management and working out at the gym to build muscles on his skeleton of a body. He resumed training in Colorado for the 2010 Olympics. And an idea to help others soon would snowball.
Winter sports tips to keep you safe
1. Protect your medication
Users of traditional insulin pumps can clip their device and tubing to the inside of their clothes. “I use a tubeless insulin pump,” says Busby
2. Warm your extremities
Poor circulation may be a complication of diabetes and creates a greater risk for frostbite. This can be particularly dangerous for people who lack sensation in their feet, hands, or both because of diabetic neuropathy. If you have neuropathy, talk to your health care provider before exercising in cold weather.
3. Mind your meter
To avoid the problem: Tuck some batteries into an inner pocket of your clothing, pull them out when you need to test, and then return them to the warmth.
|4. Chew on tabs|
As much as you might like sucking on glucose gels or eating candy when you’re low, those aren’t the most reliable when cold. Busby treats lows with glucose tablets because gels and certain types of candy freeze.
|5. Bring backup|
Pros such as Busby always plan for the worst-case scenario. Pack a bag with extras of all your supplies. And wear a medical ID bracelet so paramedics will be aware of your diabetes should you get hurt.
Riding on Insulin
After his drawn-out illness, Busby looked in wonder at type 1 kids who had been diagnosed at such young ages. “I realized how fortunate I was to have grown up free of this disease and experience a lot of normalcy,” he says. “[Being inspired by the children] is what gave me back snowboarding. It gave me my life back, and I wanted to give back.”
The result: Busby’s nonprofit, Riding on Insulin, which runs snowboarding clinics across the United States (and in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) for kids with diabetes ages 7 to 17. Aside from teaching them the fine art of snowboarding, the camps are an opportunity for kids with diabetes to meet others just like them and learn how to manage their blood glucose in extreme circumstances.
Still, with diabetes and no health insurance as a pro snowboarder, Busby shelved his Olympic training and suspended Riding on Insulin for a time. He packed up for college at the University of Utah, where he earned a degree in health promotion and education. He’d resume his work with Riding on Insulin a year later, but first he had an adventure in store.
A World Beyond
The world was white and cold. Snow covered the top of the mountain and land in all directions until it hit the icy blue water. Busby, bundled to avoid hypothermia and shouldering a pack of diabetes supplies and avalanche preparedness tools, stepped onto his snowboard and pushed off. He leaned forward into the mountain, then backward, zigzagging down the steep slope, spraying powdery snow as he went. And then he noticed something he would never see at competitions: A group of penguins lazed nearby. This was Antarctica.
He’d joined a group of guys on the expedition in 2008 the minute they asked; snowboarding on the continent had been a dream since he was a teen. And Busby wanted to push his abilities to the limit—which is hard to do at competitions that have course boundaries—and experience a place, not just a ski resort. “On this expedition [to the peninsula of Antarctica] I was able to go and really experience the culture,” he says.
Since that first trip, Busby has snowboarded the toughest slopes throughout North America and in Iceland, New Zealand, and elsewhere, including a second trip to Antarctica. “Going into the middle of nowhere, you can’t predict the weather. The concern is hypothermia and avalanches,” Busby says. All of which, plus blizzards and subzero temps, make diabetes planning essential (see "Weather Wisdom").
The stress, too, can make his blood glucose skyrocket and then plummet. “[In Iceland], we had three avalanches, and that shot my blood sugar way up,” says Busby. “The weather was really variable. We’d go from whiteout to sunny conditions with a lot of wind. In those situations I end up going low.”
Because of this, Busby organizes an expedition like a superhero planning the takedown of a villain: precisely and carefully, considering all possible situations. “Everything needs to be in control prior to an expedition,” he says. “I will never go on an expedition with my A1C over 7 percent. If I’m not in control, I put my expedition members at risk.”
From each expedition, Busby sends a message back to kids with diabetes. “Thankfully, I have a lot of generous sponsors who let me conference into children’s hospitals,” he says. “I always try to have a diabetes message: Anything is possible. You can go to the most remote ends of the earth if you want to.”
Now Busby is on new ice, having stopped racing to lead the nonprofit Riding on Insulin. He watches the kids make friends, better care for their diabetes, and tear up the slopes. He still also snowboards—a lot, for fun.
Busby enjoys his new challenges—and overcoming them. His latest aspiration: a trip to eastern Greenland in the Arctic Circle with a team of people with diabetes. They’ll need a helicopter to reach Greenland and dogsleds to get to the remote area where the group will ski and snowboard, and possibly face polar bears. “To be able to go there and guide and take other people with diabetes is a dream of mine,” he says.
Busby has found his true north. He knows he’s capable of anything—flying down a windswept mountain or winning Olympic gold, a dream Busby hasn’t totally given up on—and he wants others to believe they’re capable, too. “[Diabetes] has given me a direction in my life,” he says. “I believe I was given this disease for a reason, and that’s to show others anything’s possible.”