Commentary

Skier slowed, not stopped, by diabetes

Updated: February 21, 2010, 2:35 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- You are Kris Freeman and you may be the best cross-country distance skier in America, an Olympic medal contender for a country that hasn't won a medal in this discipline in 34 years. But you are also diabetic and instead of medaling in the biggest race of your life, you are lying in the snow, watching competitors pass you by, betrayed again by your body. And for once, you think about quitting and walking back to the finish. But first your body needs the strength to do even that.

[+] EnlargeKris Freeman
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty ImagesKris Freeman has overcome incredible odds to compete at the Olympic level.

You are Kris Freeman and you are an American cross-country skier, which is a bit like being a Dutch baseball player. You grew up hearing people say that Americans will never be good in the sport, that while you could win junior competitions here, you would get crushed if you ever raced in Europe. You didn't care. You love to ski and you thrive on challenges. So you kept skiing, steadily getting better and better and better until people finally stopped saying you couldn't race with the Europeans.

When you were 21, doctors gave you some bad news. You had diabetes, Type 1 diabetes to be specific, the really bad kind, the type that requires insulin injections. The doctors said that, obviously, competitive skiing was out. Your older brother cried over the diagnosis because (as he would blog later) everything he read about diabetes told him that not only were you done racing you were "going to die about a decade early after suffering various complications from his diabetes."

You didn't care. You love challenges and this was just another.

So on top of everything else a cross-country skier must worry about -- intense training, varying snow conditions, precise wax combinations -- you also maintain a proper blood sugar level with an insulin pump and a strict diet that requires knowing precisely how many calories and how many grams of sugar are in every meal. To keep the proper blood level, you also listen to soothing music and read books before a race.

It works. You showed them. You finished fourth in two World Cup races. You are able go to summer camps, telling kids without exaggeration, "There are no limits with diabetes. … Anything is possible with this disease." You appear on the cover of Outside magazine's Olympic preview and on the "Today Show." You aren't favored to medal but you have a realistic chance. Before the Olympics, you told reporters that an American medal is "Sooooo possible. And it won't be a freak day. We can do this on a fair, even playing field."

As far as you know, you are the first Olympic endurance athlete with Type 1 diabetes.

You woke up the morning of the 30K pursuit to a heavenly day in the mountains, the sky as deep blue as a Dodgers cap, the temperature warm enough for T-shirts. The sort of day that makes people want to spin around and sing how the hills are alive. You went through your prerace routine. You calculated the proper basal insulin level needed for racing 30 kilometers and you selected your ski wax. You listened to soothing music (ballads by Guns N' Roses) and read a book ("The Cider House Rules" by John Irving) so that your blood sugar wouldn't spike from prerace excitement.

You had a terrible race earlier in the week due to a ski problem, but were you ready for this race. You are Kris Freeman, 29 years old, racing in your third Olympics and in the prime of your career.

The first 15 kilometers of the 30K pursuit is skied in classic style on one pair of skis, the final 15 in the skate style on a different pair. You went out as part of a mass start into the hills surrounding the stadium area. You were hanging onto the back of the lead group feeling "calm, relaxed and controlled."

And then your blood sugar level crashed on the fourth lap around the course. All of a sudden, your body stopped working, leaving you drained and weak and faint. This has happened a handful of times before in races and it isn't life-threatening, but it is dream-killing. You may say diabetes places no limits on a person, but it does place obstacles in front of them, and right now you can't get past those because the world is spinning and you are unable to do anything but drop to the ground. You are one of the best conditioned athletes in the world and all you can do is lie in the snow and watch your competitors and your Olympic chance slip away.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Hellner
Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRESweden's Marcus Hellner won gold in the men's 30k cross-country race.

A coach with the German team sees you and realizes what is happening. He rushes to your side and hands you a bottle of Gatorade and an energy gel. Gradually your blood sugar returns to a proper level and you are able to stand. You are still weak but this is the Olympics and you are going to finish. After all you've overcome to get here, you are not going to have "DNF" placed next to your name in the race results.

You are in 47th place and you have lost 2½ minutes but you will not give in no matter what your body says. Eventually your body gets the hint and recovers. The last lap you begin feeling good.

And then the race is over. You have finished 45th, nearly eight minutes behind gold medalist Marcus Hellner of Sweden.

Among the nearly 300 reporters and photographers who swelled the venue media tent are just four American writers who bothered to show up to watch you race. They ask you what happened and you explain. "I'm crushed," you tell them. "I don't know what's happening. I've been gearing toward this for four years and in my worst nightmares, I couldn't imagine these races going any worse. … It was just all of a sudden lights out, all of a sudden my body wasn't working. I thought that was going to be it. If the coach hadn't come up and given me some sugar, I would have had to walk back to the finish line."

"Doing a sport like this where there are so many variables," says your teammate, James Southam, "it's tough enough when you have an ideal, normal body status, but when you've got something going on like he has. He's done an amazing job handling it. There aren't a lot of people breaking the way for him and he's figuring a lot out on his own and experimenting and doing a great job."

You probably have one final race, the 50K on the last day of the Olympics. So you will go over what happened, figure out what went wrong with your blood sugar, recalibrate your basal insulin and race. Because this is the Olympics, and what else would you do? Give in to diabetes? No way. You are Kris Freeman and as you told reporters, "I don't identify myself as a diabetic, I identify myself as a cross-country skier."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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