In 1983, Bill Carlson made history when he became the world’s first person with Type 1 diabetes to complete the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon World Championship.
In an age when people using insulin were discouraged from doing strenuous exercise, Bill was one of a thousand World Championship competitors to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full marathon. He did it in thirteen hours, twenty minutes–45 minutes of that time was spent on medical checks.
To people with diabetes everywhere, Bill Carlson was immortalized as a pioneer. He used the world’s stage to show us that there’s no type of exercise a person with diabetes shouldn’t do, as long as they’re willing to control their condition.
Since his diagnosis at age 16, Bill has raced in more than 300 triathlons, marathons, ultramarathons, and bicycle road races.
Now in his fifties, working full time, Bill still manages to ride 40 miles on his road bike each day, in between interval runs, swim workouts, and week-long treks on the Pacific Crest Trail with his daughter. He’s known to ride his bike 120 miles to show up for dinner at a friend’s house. He is training the only way he knows how, harder than ever.
Since the beginning, Bill made it a point to share his technical knowledge to a world in need. Following his undergraduate studies in exercise science, Bill took the opportunity to work professionally with the world’s leading physicians, physiology labs, sports brands, nutrition, pharmaceutical, and device companies, developing groundbreaking protocols for an increasing patient population. He became the National Physical Fitness Chairman for the American Diabetes Association, and spoke extensively throughout North America.
“I manage my diabetes so that I can ride, so that I can run, so that I can swim,” says Bill. “Physical activity happens to be the best thing for an insulin-dependent diabetic. The passion is what needs to be disseminated amongst all people with diabetes.”
In 1991, Bill returned to physical therapy school so that he could better understand the human body while he continued to perform at the highest level as an amateur athlete.
Bill’s athletic career began as the first insulin pump was hitting the market, and injectable insulin still came from pigs. Hourly blood-sugar checks would take up to two minutes.
Today he can track his blood glucose levels in real-time on a smart phone…or even a smart watch as he logs miles on the bike. Synthetic insulins are delivered through pumps with a footprint smaller than a credit card and color touch screens.
The years have brought many changes and improvements to diabetes management, but Bill’s message has always remained the same. Keep a positive attitude, continue to move your body, and always be on top of your blood sugar control.
“I’ve had diabetes for 39 years, and my body feels great. Don’t let life pass you by,” he says.
Skills and attitude have been pivotal toward Bill’s success. And his attitude is the same today as it was in 1983.
“I see myself as a regular guy, an athlete who just happens to monitor his blood sugars and take shots, that’s all,” he says. “It’s just a normal part of my daily routine.”
And as the years pass, perceptions of life with diabetes continue to change. Today there are thousands of people with diabetes doing triathlons, climbing mountains, participating at the highest level in sport—all thanks to a pioneer named Bill Carlson.
Carlson’s mission was made even more personal in 2007, when his 10-year-old son Clayton was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was then that Bill decided it was time to return to the World’s Stage, back to the Ironman World Championships.
Since 2008, when he first attempted to re-qualify for the Hawaiian Ironman, Bill has fine-tuned his approach, earning a podium finish in the 2015 Wisconsin Ironman. His performance earned him a coveted entry into the 2016 Ironman World Championship in Kona.
“Kona means to me another opportunity to show the world that someone with diabetes can do the most difficult athletic performance and succeed,” Carlson says.
It will be 33 years since his historic finish in 1983, six months prior to completing his Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and just two months after his wife and biggest supporter Suzanne was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.
At the 2015 Madison race there were more than 40 other athletes with diabetes competing alongside Bill. With his help, studies have already proven that exercise can reduce diabetes-related complications. But, for Bill Carlson, there is still work to be done to educate and empower a world of people living with diabetes.
“I want to be on the forefront of helping people realize that there is a healthy way to live,” said Bill. “If there’s a way I could change the way that people eat, the quality of the foods people eat, and improve the exercise quantity so that diabetes could be lessened or at least people have a better understanding how to manage diabetes, that would be a huge win and a huge mark that I could leave when my time here is up.”
This year Bill will be racing wearing Bib #398 in the 55-59 age category. On race day he can be tracked using various Ironman athlete tracker apps available online and for download on mobile.