By: Patrick Totty
Professional surfer Scott Dunton, 21, has two missions in life: To keep climbing in the rankings as one of the world’s top competitive surfers, and to spread the word to children and teenagers everywhere that having diabetes doesn’t mean life’s joys come to a halt.
The first time he chats with us, he is nearing the end of a two-week inspirational speaking tour of 20 Canadian camps that cater to children and teens with diabetes. “I’ve told my life story so many times over the past few days that I’m starting to bore myself,” he laughs. But the kids he talks to love his speeches, and afterwards cluster around him, sometimes for as long as two hours, asking questions and getting him to autograph posters.
Today, though, he himself isn’t a particularly happy camper. It’s late winter in Canada, and Scott, who wears shorts almost year-round at his home on the balmy big island of Hawaii, has been watching the skin on his formerly tanned legs turn pasty white. “I’m not used to this cold weather,” he says, talking from a hotel room in Toronto. “I’m holding out for warm weather tomorrow in Vancouver.”
An Encounter to Remember
However, there is one thing that has warmed him greatly in Canada: the encounter he had the day before with a teenage boy at a Toronto hospital. What happened, he says, was a chance coming together that seemed to be an almost epic coincidence.
“I was at a clinic for diabetic children, talking to the kids there, when a nurse approached me and asked me if I would visit with a 13-year-old boy who had been admitted to the ER the night before.” On arrival, the boy apparently had been close to slipping into a coma. After a battery of tests the next morning, the boy learned that he had type 1 diabetes – only two hours before Scott arrived at the clinic.
“She asked, ‘Can you go in and cheer him up?’”
Scott entered the boy’s and introduced himself. “He was super sad and bummed out on life,” says Scott. “He barely mumbled his name when I asked what it was.” The already tense and emotional situation became even more so when the boy’s dad entered the room moments later, crying at the news of his son’s diagnosis.
Scott quietly began talking to the boy. “I told him that I knew how bad it sucks at first, and that I knew how he felt. But I also told him that it gets better, that even though he felt that all of the doors in his life had just been closed, they would slowly open back up. Eventually all of them would open back up.”
Heartened by Scott’s promise, the boy began talking about himself. “I learned that he had lived in Maui for a few months and had just come back to Canada only the week before. Technically that made us fellow Hawaiians, so we started talking about Maui and the schools there, and what beaches he used to like going to to watch surfers.”
For Scott, the experience was profound. “It was weird how much we were alike. I had never been in that position, to be able to come in and help somebody at such a difficult time.” It was, he says, one of the most profound coincidences of his life.
“We talked some more, and I showed him my video, where he saw me leading an active life despite my own diabetes. When I left, he was in a much better mood, talking and laughing. I gave him my e-mail address and asked him to contact me if he had problems or questions, or just to see what’s up.”
Scott is back in Hawaii, clad in cutoffs and regenerating his tan, when he talks to us about the ins and outs of life as a competitive surfer with diabetes.
He enters about 50 competitions a year. Like all of the people he competes against, he can keep his combined seven or eight highest scores to achieve an overall international rating. How long will he keep at it? “I can compete competitively until my mid or late 30s, so I still have a good 10 or 15 years left. Right now, I rank 119th in the world, out of the top 800 competitive surfers. I’m happy to keep on seeing how far up I can move.”
Surfing competitions take 30 minutes, so he tries to go out at a BG level of 130 mg/dl to 140 mg/dl – his trending is pretty solid, so he trusts those numbers. If he’s going out to surf by himself for two or three hours, he sets out at 150 mg/dl to 160 mg/dl. He keeps a pre-stocked cooler on the beach for emergencies, filled with Gatorade and Snickers bars.
His Closest Call
The greatest danger he ever ran while surfing is one that will resonate with many Diabetes Health readers. “Before I went on an insulin pump, I would take Lantus at 8 a.m. and then go surfing. One day before a competition I grabbed the wrong bottle and wound up injecting 20 units of fast-acting insulin without realizing it. Fortunately my mom was with me. When I realized what I had done, I sat and ate as much candy as I could for as long as I could.”
He says that sometimes people remark that it must be neat for him to occasionally be able to eat as many sweets as he wants. “But I think it sucks having to make yourself eat or drink a lot of sugar when you’re not hungry or in the mood for it."
Several companies sponsor him, and when people see their logos on his surfboard they realize he has diabetes. “I get every different type of reaction,” says Scott. “The most common one is being baffled: ‘How do you surf?’ They trip out on it because their impression of diabetes is what their grandparents had – you can’t ever eat sugar and you can never be active.
“Now it’s true that when you are diagnosed with diabetes, the biggest door that closes is food. It’s scary when you find that you can’t enjoy your favorite foods or believe that you may never be able to enjoy them again.” But he makes no excuses when it comes to eating. “Food makes me happy. My favorite food is sushi, which means I have to work around the rice it comes with.”
He says that he eats pretty much anything he wants. “I went from a careful carbo-counting diet after I was first diagnosed to eating what I want, providing I’m careful about taking into account how I’m going to balance it with insulin. His favorite breakfast is Fruity Pebbles, which he acknowledges are nothing more than sugar bound in starch. “But I love them – they’re so good! I take 12 units insulin a good bit beforehand, 20 or 30 minutes, eat the cereal and then go surf.” His carbohydrate ratio is 15 grams of carbs per unit of Novolog insulin. The insulin and surfing keep his levels under control.
His Ultimate Audience
One of added joys of surfing is that it has allowed Scott to travel extensively – to Brazil, Australia, Mexico, the mainland, the Caribbean, and even England and Scotland. Ireland beckons in the near future. For now he gets to share his traveler’s tales with diabetic kids, “sitting in hospital rooms, feeling bummed out on life, who need to see that life goes on.” But there’s one audience he especially looks forward to reaching one day: “I can’t wait until I have kids just to be able to show them my travel photos.”
Watching Scott Surf
Scott has an instinct for finding the perfect seam on a wave, that imaginary line halfway between its base and the top as it begins to curl over. As the curl comes roaring down, it creates a giant watery tube that hides Scott from view. Onlookers gasp and worry that the wave has swallowed him up.
But seconds later, Scott emerges from the tube, cool and calm, and races toward a spot where he can wheel 180 degrees, standing on his board at an impossible angle, to head back and ride the wave again.
Scott’s Diabetes Vital Statistics
- First diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: Age 16 with a reading of 628
- Current A1c: 6.8 His doctor takes him out to dinner each time he meets an A1c goal.
- Preferred levels before a 30-minute competition: 130 mg/dl to 140 mg/dl
- Preferred levels before a two-hour joy ride on the waves: 150 mg/dl to 160 mg/dl
- CGM: MedTronic
- Insulin pump: MedTronic
- Foods in hypoglycemic emergency chest: Gatorade and Snickers bars
- Current Clients: MedTronic, Allyance Clothing, SMT Surfboards, Esteem surf shops, and B Clear Diabetic Energy Drink
- Insulin units per day (bolus and basal): 52
- Typical breakfast: eggs, English muffin; sometimes cereal or pancakes
- Typical lunch: fish. “I eat way too much fish.”
- Typical dinner: fish and rice or meat and rice.