By: Lou Dzierzak
Phil Southerland was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was seven months old. Now 28, he has always taken an aggressive approach to managing the disease. He recalls, “My mom scared the daylights out of me when I was six years old by letting me know about the severe complications of diabetes if you don’t take care of it. That has motivated me to never let those complications fall on my shoulders.”
Noticing that not all diabetics shared that commitment bothered Southerland. After successfully convincing Joe Eldridge, a college friend, to be more diligent about checking his blood sugar levels, the pair decided to spread the message to a wider audience. Southerland says, “I want to take that message to any other kid out there so they know they can do it, and show people with diabetes that once you get control, you can achieve your dreams.”
In 2004, to accomplish that mission, Southerland and Eldridge formed Team Type 1, the first professional cycling racing team including riders who have type 1 diabetes.Two years later, Team Type 1 entered the grueling 3,000-mile Race Across America cycling contest. Southerland recalls, “When we showed up in 2006, people said ‘It’s great, what you’re doing. Good luck.’ But they didn’t think we had a chance in hell to finish that race, much less go out and win it. We proved that not only can you ride a bike with diabetes, but you can win a bike race with it.” Team Type 1’s eight-person team won the Race Across America event in 2006 and 2007. Both victories set new time records for the race.
Southerland, who will not compete in 2010, serves as Team Type 1’s chief executive officer. Since the initial eight riders in 2006, the organization has added a professional women’s team, a triathlon team, and a development team of riders between the ages of 17 and 24. The 17-rider professional men’s team includes four riders with type 1 diabetes: Fabio Calabria, team co-founder Joe Eldridge, Javier Megias, and Martijn Verschoor.
On the professional racing circuit, Team Type 1 riders are accepted unconditionally. Southerland says,” The coolest thing is we are not perceived to be any different. We are a fiercely competitive team, and the riders with type 1 diabetes are succeeding just as much as the riders without diabetes.”
Still, in a sport as physically demanding as bicycle racing, diabetes must be taken seriously. During the off-season, the team trains six days a week, learning how their bodies react to food and exercise and how to eat to ensure that they can get through the race. Southerland notes, “We educate the entire team, riders with and without diabetes. We tell them what the disease is, what it means, and how we perform if our blood sugar isn’t where it’s supposed to be. The team is much more conscious of nutrition during races. Everybody is asking each other, ‘Have you eaten enough? What’s your blood sugar?'”
Southerland continues, “Diabetes never goes away. It can be a disease that is frustrating. You don’t want to deal with it some days. Sometimes people just need to know that they can do it. For us, that’s been the light switch for so many of our athletes. Once they become part of the team, they realize, ‘I can do this I just have to make a few adjustments so I can succeed.'” Not paying attention, however, can have serious results. He says, “Bonking for us is dangerous. If our blood sugar crashes too low in a bike race, it not only means you’re not going to finish the race, but you could go off the side of the mountain or lose control and crash at 35 miles an hour.”
Southerland believes the teams’ intense focus on diabetes offers a small competitive edge. He explains,” It’s our little advantage. With diabetes you constantly have to be focused on nutrition, where your blood sugar is, and what direction it’s going. They say knowledge is power. In our little world, blood sugar information is priceless.”
Spreading the world about diabetes is easier when the team has more to talk about than the disease. Winning races certainly helps. In 2009, Team Type 1 riders captured more than fifty races and finished fourth in the National Racing Calendar circuit. In two seasons of competition, the riders have accumulated more than 200 top three finishes. Southerland says,” The more we win, the more people talk about us. The more we win, the more kids find out about us. We have a great team, management staff, and partners to carry out this mission.”
Operating a professional bicycle racing team is expensive. The 2010 Team Type 1 is sponsored by Sanofi-Aventis Apidra and Lantus insulins, Abbott Diabetes Care FreeStyle Navigator Continuous Monitoring System, Insulet’s OmniPod Insulin Management System, Dex4, and VSP Vision Care.
Southerland graciously acknowledges that the technology the team’s sponsors have created eases his life, “I have the ability to micromanage my metabolism to keep my blood sugar where I need it at all times. It’s not just technology though. It’s also lifestyle. I could have all this technology, but if I sat on my butt all day eating junk food, I wouldn’t be able to control my blood sugar. You don’t need to ride a bike five hours a day. Even running or walking four times a week really makes control so much easier.”
When not racing, Team Type 1 spends time spreading their message. Last year, members of Team Type 1 visited over 1,300 endocrinologists and primary care offices to share the team’s experiences with doctors, educators, nurses, and patients.The thrill of a stage win at a professional bicycle race pales against the sense of accomplishment Southerland feels during these visits. He explains,” There’s nothing more rewarding than going to a kid’s camp. At the end of every talk I give to kids, I ask them, ‘What are your dreams?’ Then all the kids raise their hands. If there are 300 kids, that’s 300 different dreams about what they want to do in this world. When I ask them, ‘Who is willing to check their blood sugar three more times a day and exercise so that one day that dream can come true?” all the hands go up. I hear reports six months later that their A1c is better, they feel better, and their attitudes are better. There’s nothing more rewarding for me.”
Southerland reports the team’s mission is becoming global. Team Type 1 is working with the International Diabetes Federation on a five-year plan to deliver diabetes supplies to children around the world. He reports,” I do feel a sense of accomplishment, but there are still children in this world who die from diabetes because they don’t have access to these tools.”
Measures of success come in several forms. Southerland states, “If I can provide inspiration by putting a type 1 [rider] in the Tour de France and provide tools to kids around the world and inspire them to take control of their diabetes, that’s when I’ll put my feet up for a minute and say ‘That feels good.'” He concludes, “If you have type 1, you are part of Team Type 1. If you are type 2, you are part of Team Type 2. To all of these people, we welcome you to the team.”