This past August, Gary Hall, Jr., represented the United States at the Olympicsin Athens, Greece. It was the third Olympics for Hall—having competed in the2000 and 1996 Olympics where he won a total of eight medals.
By qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, Hall joins his dad, Gary Hall, Sr., as the first father-son combo to qualify for three Olympics (Gary Hall, Sr., competed in the 1968, 1972 and 1976 games as a swimmer).
Gary Hall, Jr., also became the oldest male swimmer to qualify for the Olympics in 80 years. And if that isn’t enough, he also has his sights set on the 2008 Olympics—when he will be closing in on the age of 34. Oh—and Hall has type 1 diabetes, which, five years ago, was supposed to bring his career to an abrupt halt.
From ‘Your Career Is Over’ to Gold at Sydney
Hall was diagnosed with type 1 in March 1999, at which time his doctors told him that his swimming career was over.
After a little time of feeling down, Hall got back on the horse and began learning everything he needed to learn about diabetes. He then hooked up with endocrinologist Anne Peters Harmel, MD, of UCLA, who, according to Hall, was instrumental in getting him back into competitive swimming.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, his first as a diagnosed diabetic, Hall won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
We caught up with Gary Hall, Jr., by phone when he was training at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. At press time, he had not yet competed in either of his 2004 Olympic events, the 50-meter freestyle and the 4- x 100-meter relay.
How does it feel to be a three time Olympian?
I’m having as much fun with it now as I have ever had. I’m actually more excited this time. I feel stronger now than I did when I was 21 and preparing for the 1996 Olympics.
I hear you’re the oldest swimmer in a long time to qualify for the Olympics.
It’s funny. Going into the qualifying trials, a lot of media were asking me about my age . I thought they were making a big deal about nothing. But after I swam the races and I qualified for the team, somebody told me that I am the oldest person to qualify for the U.S. men’s swim team in 80 years. If they hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have felt like I was doing anything too extraordinary.
How does the stress of training and preparing for the Olympics affect your diabetes control?
It is pretty stressful. For some people, trying to make it to the Olympics might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For swimmers, the Olympics are the most important swimming event that the world has to offer, and you’re lucky if you get the opportunity once. It’s every four years, so if you fail, you have a long wait until the next one. It’s not like baseball, where if you have a bad game, there’s always tomorrow. It‘s basically, you get one pitch every four years, and you have to hit it out of the park. Not just out of the park, but farther than anybody else.
So, the stress of all that does take its toll on my diabetes. It forces me to pay extra-close attention in order for me to maintain my levels where they need to be, so I can be competitive with the best athletes in the world.
How often do you find yourself testing when you are preparing for a really important race?
Usually when I’m not competing, I test eight times per day using a One Touch meter. That’s usually all I need while I’m training.
How does competitive racing affect your BGs?
At the 2000 Olympics, I tested my BGs 10 minutes before my race, and it was 140 mg/dl. It was a 21-second race. Five minutes after the race, I tested again and it was 388 mg/dl.
Then in 2004, before the Olympic trials in Long Beach, California, I tested 10 minutes before and it was 150 mg/dl. It was another 21-second race, and I qualified for the Olympics. Five minutes after the race, I tested, and it was 36 mg/dl.
You never know what’s going to happen. The only way to know is by testing. For me, I’m just constantly using my One Touch.
Given that these BGs can go either way, what do you keep in your bag by the pool for after the race?
I usually have juice for the lows and take NovoLog for the highs. My diabetes kit is in my bag and goes with me right up to the starting blocks.
As you prepare for Athens, what do you know about diabetes that you didn’t know before the 2000 Olympics?
I think the more time you have diabetes, the more you can figure out and start to anticipate what changes will take place. You still need to test whether you are on the pump or multiple injections. You still need to test to allow yourself the knowledge to make the appropriate adjustments. Diabetes seems to be a disease of constant fine-tuning, and that can be inconvenient. But at the same time, that inconvenience, when compared to complications that may arise if you don’t manage, is a small price to pay.
How did your doctor, endocrinologist Anne Peters Harmel, change your way of thinking, after your original doctor said your career was over?
Anne was so instrumental in not just getting me back in the water but getting me to accept diabetes. And that’s such a crucial part accepting the fact that this is the hand that I have been dealt. I can run from diabetes but I’ll never get very far. It’s gonna catch up to me, and I need to deal with it and move on. A great doctor like Anne is able to do that for her patient.
Do you think accepting your diabetes gave you an extra mental advantage as a swimmer?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. It gave me a sense of mortality and a sense of appreciation for who I am and what I am doing, and making every day count. I think I have a better sense of that. There was so much uncertainty in 2000. There weren’t people pointing out to me that other type 1s have accomplished great things. With time, I was able to figure out, “Yes, I can do this.” So I think this time around I am more confident because I know it can be done.