Freeman copes with challenge of skiing with diabetes

AP Photo Kris Freeman, of the United States, who is diabetic, leads the pack on course during the men's 30km classic race at the World Cup cross country skiing event in Canmore, Alberta, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005.

CANMORE, Alberta – Luke Bodensteiner sprints alongside Kris Freeman with an open bottle of sports drink, in case the American skier senses his blood sugar is low.”Kris, if you need it!” hollers Bodensteiner, the U.S. Nordic director.Freeman skates right past – a sign he is strong and the race is going well. Two days later, during the longer 30-kilometer classic World Cup cross country race, he gladly accepts his signature mixture of soda and espresso.It’s been more than five years since Freeman received the shocking news during a routine U.S. ski team blood test that he had Type I diabetes. Doctors told him his days as an elite athlete were probably over. Yet two hours after the diagnosis, Freeman went to work out. He cried the entire training session.”I wasn’t going to stop,” says Freeman, who grew up skiing in the backcountry of rural New Hampshire. “I didn’t let it slow me down. I’ve gone around the country and I’ve done a fair amount of speaking at diabetic events, and the thing I think is the worst is when you see parents pull their kids out of activities they love because they’re concerned about it. You’ve got to keep the kid living a normal life and don’t let them give up.”

Freeman will compete in his second Olympics this February in Turin. He is focused on the 15-kilometer classic race after placing 22nd in the event at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.It took Freeman about a year to figure out how much insulin his body requires each day, which can constantly change considering he spends so much of his life in hotel rooms and different time zones around the world.Freeman eats five meals a day and up to 4,500 calories during his most rigorous training periods. He has sponsors who supply him with glucose strips and insulin. He eats an energy bar minutes before his race starts in hopes it will carry him through. He injects himself anywhere from six to 10 times a day, including a long-lasting insulin before bed.”It’s automatic, it’s ingrained,” the 25-year-old Freeman says of his routine. “It’s something I’ve got to do.”He refuses to use his diabetes as an excuse. He’s not happy with a top-20 finish and is striving to reach the podium in Pragelato, the Olympic site for cross country.

“Kris is an ultra-focused, ultra-competitive guy,” Bodensteiner says. “It’s a pretty amazing deal. There’s nobody I know in the world who’s competing at an elite level in endurance athletics who has that kind of issue going on. It just made him more focused. It was incredible, his reaction.”Freeman holds out hope the disease will be cured and that the government will further realize the importance of stem-cell research. As far as he knows, he is the only diabetic endurance athlete. Three-time Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. is diabetic, and Gonzaga University basketball star Adam Morrison injects himself with insulin on the bench during games.Freeman’s older brother, Justin, also on the U.S. ski team, remembers the day his mother called to tell him about his brother’s diagnosis. Everybody worried. The disease didn’t run in the family, though their father has dealt with a thyroid problem.Strangely enough, not long before his diagnosis, Freeman had been asked by a potential sponsor to write about a hardship he’d faced. He couldn’t think of anything.Then came the diagnosis in September 2000, followed by compartment syndrome in his legs less than a year later – a painful condition that affects the function of muscles and nerves – that required surgery on each of his shins.

“It’s weird because most people diagnosed with diabetes are hospitalized,” says his brother, who doubles as his roommate on the road. “We thought, ‘He’s perfectly healthy. There can’t be anything wrong with him.”‘With low body fat – around 5 percent – Freeman has a hard time finding places to inject the insulin. He has a half-inch-thick area of scar tissue on his abdomen and sometimes hits muscle with the needle. One day he likely will switch to his backside, though it’s a much less convenient spot.If his blood sugar becomes low, Freeman begins sweating and feels sick to his stomach. It doesn’t happen as often these days.”In the years I’ve been racing with diabetes, I’ve only had two races affected by diabetes,” says Freeman, who once had to wrestle a Russian coach for a sports drink when the person scheduled to hand him his feed dropped the drink. “It’s bound to happen again. My goal is to have it happen as infrequently as possible.”Freeman prepares his own feeds and politely reminds someone with the team to bring it out to the course. But during the recent World Cup races at Canmore Nordic Centre, Bodensteiner was already on top of it when Freeman passed him near the team’s waxing hut before the start.”When he races, we get as many hands as we can out on the course with bottles of sports drink for him, because at any point he can start getting fuzzy,” Bodensteiner says. “He is one of those athletes who does everything exactly right, and everything he does is meant to make him faster. It’s something to watch, I’ll tell you.”

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