My diabetic educator fired up a video of professional athletes enjoying their chosen sport. A cyclist whizzed down mountainous trails in California with an insulin pump mounted on his hip. A swimmer dove into a pool and came up just long enough to start a perfect breast stroke. These were supposed to be my new heroes. We now shared a bond. I was nearing the end of the second day of an unplanned hospital stay. At 14 years old I had just been told that I was a Type 1 Diabetic and that my life was never going to be the same. After the initial heartbreak, they feel the need to build you back up.
The video they sent me home with did very little to bring me back around. I was never an athlete and I spent a lot of my time with various online pursuits that many teenagers enjoy; gaming and social media. While it was a kind gesture, these diabetic super jocks did little to spur my interest and I went back to my normal life with the exception of regularly taking my blood sugar and giving myself 4 shots of insulin per day. Luck would have it, I would first be exposed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A commercial came on my television screen late at night depicting a type of brawling that I had never known was in existence; Heavily muscled, tattooed men in an all out fight. I instantly became a fan.
It had taken several years before I mustered up the courage to walk into a local Mixed Martial Arts gym. By this point, I was 17 years old and had been using an insulin pump for the better part of my diabetic life. Gatorade and granola bars were standard issue in my gym bag along with boxing gloves, mouth guard, and wrestling shoes. I would check my blood sugar in the parking lot and discreetly unhook my insulin pump before stepping onto the mat. About once a month I would have an infusion sight ripped out while grappling, something that irritates me to no end even to this day. Once I feel my sight dangling from my skin by the last bit of adhesive I have to suppress the urge to rip it off and throw it across the room.
Occasionally my blood sugar would drop in the middle of training. I would rush off of the mat to down half a bottle of Gatorade in time to get back into the mix of punching and kicking by the beginning of the next round. After about a year and a half of training, I was approached by my coach and asked if I would be interested in making my MMA debut at the Pair A Dice Casino in Peoria, Illinois. Without thinking twice, I agreed to the bout and the month between my initial excitement and the night of the fight passed in the blink of an eye. I showed up at the venue with my team and coaches like I would to any other practice. I had my Gatorade, granola bars, mouth guard and extra infusion sets for post fight.
I didn’t know any other diabetic fighters or if any diabetic fighters even existed. A couple weeks prior to the fight someone mentioned to me that they were surprised that I was allowed to participate in my condition. It had never crossed my mind until that point that my diabetes might keep me from doing this thing I’d set my mind to. I performed as well as anyone else in the gym so I felt like there was no chance I’d let this disease stand in my way if at all possible. And even if there were restrictions, there was a good chance I could slip through the cracks if I kept my mouth shut. In Illinois at that time there was very little oversight in the MMA business. There was no bloodwork requirement, no licensing for amateurs and last minute matches would be put together on the day of the event more times than not. The lack of structure helped to put my mind at ease.
I was handed a sheet of paper to fill out with some basic information. Along with lines for name and hometown, there was a line at the bottom to list any medical conditions. I left it blank and got in line with the rest of the fighters to get my blood pressure checked. I’ve never quite understood why the blood pressure is the main concern of the medical staff on scene. They must want to make sure that everyone that’s fighting is as scared shitless as they think they should be.
When it was my time to sit down and meet with the doctor, I noticed that he had an insulin pump clipped to his belt. I went from feeling cagey and anxious to suddenly feeling like I was sitting across from an ally. My vital signs looked good for a person that knew in 30 minutes he would be half naked and getting punched in the face in front of hundreds of people. When he was done with his assessment, he asked if there were any medical conditions I wanted him to know about. I told him I was diabetic, and his expression changed instantly. I could tell he was interested and almost seemed pleased. We didn’t talk about his insulin pump because it wasn’t necessary, he wished me luck and I walked off to the dressing room to prepare for battle.
It only took me 25 seconds to finish my opponent by armbar. The face full of bruises I walked away and it was hard to believe, I was in the shortest fight of the night. I would walk out of the venue as a part of an undefeated team. The year of hard work, self-doubt and anxiety was well worth it for the feeling of having my hand raised at the end of the night. I had my fair share of celebratory drinks later that night but not before I checked my blood sugar, plugged my pump back in and corrected my high glucose like I would on any other night.