By: Brenda Neugent
As if being the first Olympic endurance athlete with type 1 diabetes wasn’t enough, there’s even more reason to look up to cross-country skiing champ Kris Freeman.
For the past nine years, the world-class athlete has devoted part of his summer to visiting diabetes camps through the Lilly Camp Care Package program, sharing his personal story with thousands of children facing their own challenges with type 1 diabetes.
He hopes to use his story-one of great success alongside equally daunting challenges-to help motivate the kids he meets and show them that their diagnosis of diabetes doesn’t have to stop them from living out their dreams.
“The kids can definitely relate to my story, and they’re inspired by it, too,” said Freeman during a telephone interview squeezed in between camp visits and hard-core training for the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (His afternoon was to include four hours in the kayak, traveling rugged waters in his home state of New Hampshire as part of his upper body-training regime.)
Freeman was diagnosed at age 19 during a routine physical at his first Olympic training camp where he was about to embark on a career as a professional cross-country skier. At the time, he was told he would never realize his dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete, making it a pivotal moment in terms of his future.
“When I was first diagnosed, the first thought that came into my head was ‘Oh my God, can I keep skiing?’ not ‘Oh, my God, am I going to die?'” he said, revealing how vital his sport was to his sense of self. “It was important recognizing how much of my life it is, and it was important recognizing that I was going to do anything I could to make it happen.”
Not allowing the training camp doctor’s “never” to be his mantra, Freeman fought for his dream, and recently won his 16th national title in the 50K, his third consecutive win. He is training hard in hopes of redemption in Sochi after low blood sugar cost him a medal at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver four years before.
During that race, plummeting blood sugar sent him crashing to the ground, but after grabbing a sports drink and a gel pack from a spectator, he finished 45th in the race, refusing to give up no matter the obstacles standing in his path.
“I knew there were people with diabetes watching that day, so part of my motivation to get up and finish was for them,” Freeman said. It is that perseverance that makes him the perfect role model for the teens and preteens at camp.
“One of the things I like to tell the kids at camp is that right now, there is no cure, but each day you learn something new about it, and each day it gets a little easier,” he said.
Freeman approaches his diabetes management with the precision and discipline he brings to his training, and since Vancouver he’s continuously expanded his knowledge of his body and how it works, especially under extreme pressure.
He sets up practice racing sessions to better determine his blood sugar levels during actual races, and keeps a close eye on not only his carb and insulin intake-he has used an Omnipod insulin pump since 2009-but also his sleep, making sure he gets 10 hours of rest to allow his body to recover after grueling workouts.
“Training isn’t what makes you fast, recovery is what makes you fast,” he said.
Last week, his training schedule included a 23-mile mountain run, a 100-mile bike ride, a few hours kayaking, and 2-½ hours on a rollerskate double pull (he uses only his upper body to propel himself) followed by a 3-mile afternoon swim.
His recovery periods include camp visits, where he not only encourages others, but also finds inspiration himself through the young people there-many of them mature beyond their years from dealing with their own diabetes diagnoses.
After his last camp visits in South Carolina, Montana, and Ohio, his schedule is clear between the final dog days of summer and the 2014 Olympics, so he’ll continue training in earnest.
“I’ve worked hard, and I’m ready to put into action everything I’ve learned after four additional years of racing and studying how my body can best perform with diabetes,” he said.
Keeping a close eye will be the countless children who are now armed with the knowledge that their futures can be just as bright, despite diabetes.
“I’ve come a long way since I was diagnosed, and I want my story to help encourage young people to find that same motivation to keep learning and to stay positive,” said Freeman.”I hope that they can find something that they’re passionate about, and go after it with as much passion as I have skiing.”