Olympic skier tells kids that diabetes isn't a handicap
Olympic cross-country skier Kris Freeman, who has type 1 diabetes, explains the insulin pump on his arm during his visit to the American Diabetes Association's Camp Diabetes at Camp Crestfield in Slippery Rock.
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"If you take care of yourself properly, it's not a handicap at all," Kris Freeman told the campers. "If you mess up, it is."
Mr. Freeman, 29, has type 1 diabetes. But that hasn't prevented him from competing as a cross-country ski racer in three Winter Olympics, most recently in Vancouver in February.
"Diabetes does not have to get in the way of your dreams and aspirations," he told the youngsters, aged 8 to 16, who were attending the Diabetes Camp last week at Camp Crestfield in Slippery Rock. It was the 12th of 14 diabetes camps sponsored by the American Diabetes Association he'll attend this summer to spread his message of hope and encouragement.
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to properly control blood sugar levels. Symptoms include feeling tired, being very thirsty, urinating often and having blurred vision. Type 1 diabetics need to take injections of insulin to regulate blood sugars.
At these camps, the athlete takes part in activities with the children, then delivers a brief talk. At Camp Crestfield, he tackled a climbing wall and shot arrows at the archery range.
As a boy growing up in New Hampshire, where his parents had him on skis almost as soon as he was able to walk, Mr. Freeman dreamed of being on the U.S. Ski Team.
At 19, he was finally on his way, training with the U.S. Ski Team in Park City, Utah, when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The doctor told him he'd have to stop training for the Olympics.
The young skier was crushed. But not for long.
"In my life, when I'm scared of something, it's usually because I don't understand it," he told the campers. He read all that he could about the condition and went shopping for a doctor who would work with him so he could still compete. His older brother, who was also a cross-country ski racer, moved in with him to provide encouragement.
By carefully regulating his diet and frequently checking his blood sugar, he kept his blood sugar within normal ranges even during intense physical activity.
"I test my blood sugar a lot -- sometimes 10 times a day -- especially on the road," Mr. Freeman told the campers.
He also monitors carefully what, how much and when he eats to keep his blood sugar from spiking or crashing.
"I think my diet is more important than my insulin regimen," he said.
This is especially so because his calorie intake varies dramatically, from about 2,500 calories per day when he isn't training to about 5,000 a day when he is.
Recent improvements in blood sugar monitoring and insulin delivery systems have made it easier for diabetics to compete. Mr. Freeman showed the campers the OmniPod he wears. Introduced in 2005, the OmniPod is a small, wireless insulin pump that delivers insulin without shots or tubing.
The OmniPod and other developments make coping with diabetes easier, Mr. Freeman said, but there is always more to learn.
"I've messed up three times in 150 races," he said. "That's not too bad."
Unfortunately, one of the times was at the Vancouver Olympics. He experienced a severe low blood sugar episode, which cost him a shot at a medal.
He had been very optimistic going in. At the world championships in 2009, he'd finished fourth -- one second from a bronze medal, eight seconds from the gold.
In retrospect, he thinks he got in trouble at the Olympics because he got too excited. Adrenalin can have a profound impact on blood sugar levels. He told the campers he regards what happened in Vancouver as a learning experience, one that he hopes will make it easier to win a medal at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
"He was fabulous. The kids were so impressed," said Karen Riley, the co-nursing director for the diabetes camp.
When she is not volunteering at the diabetes camp, Ms. Riley is the research coordinator at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
"It was pretty inspiring, about how he can compete in the Olympics even though he has diabetes," said Brandon Carrick, 14, who lives near Gettysburg. "I want to play lacrosse on the U.S. Lacrosse Team."
There were 129 children at the camp. It cost $525 for the week, but about a third of the campers received scholarships from the American Diabetes Association.
The medical staff were all volunteers, mostly from Children's Hospital.
The dates for next year's diabetes camp at Camp Crestfield are July 10-15, 2011.
First Published July 21, 2010 12:00 am