What Diabetics Share with Olympic Athletes


I love the Olympics. While I’m especially partial to track and field because I’m a runner, I am entranced by any sport in the Olympics. Handball, fencing, swimming, badminton, gymnastics … you name the sport and you’ll find me glued to the tube watching competitors go at it for the gold, silver, and bronze. I spent hour after hour in front of my computer screen watching the London Olympics this summer. I even got up at 3 a.m. to watch the women’s then the men’s marathon live. During all that watching something remarkable occurred to me: The unique qualities that make almost every single Olympic athlete successful are qualities shared by people who successfully manage their diabetes.

Like most people, I was awed and impressed by the grace, strength, agility, and power of the athletes as they competed. But the more I watched the more I was particularly struck by the overpowering focus each competitor possessed. A look of stone cold determination was etched on McKayla Maroney’s face before she executed a near perfect vault. Usain Bolt stared 100 meters down the track with a laser-like focus before he nabbed gold as the world’s fastest human for the second time in the event. Michael Phelps blocked out absolutely everything in the world except the lane he was swimming in as he powered himself into the both the record and the history books time and time again.

These athletes were not just “wearing” a look of intense focus—they weren’t mugging for the NBC and BBC cameras. And they didn’t trot out a particularly special level of concentration because it was the Olympics. Great athletes, such as those gathered in London, acquired their exceptional ability to focus and concentrate by focusing and concentrating day in and day out for months and years before they compete. As the great marathoner Juma Ikangaa said, “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”

Of course, all athletes measure and examine and plot and plan and program their fitness practices to an obsessive level. They time splits on the track or in the pool. They run patterns on the field and repeat moves on the court. They constantly compare their times, their reactions, and their performance with previous performances so they can work specifically to improve.

What great athletes share with diabetics, though, is how they do this day after day, month after month, and often year after year as they focus on the best ways to improve. They are constantly checking and monitoring and then adjusting in order to find ways to become stronger, to be healthier, and get better.

One example is how athletes obsessively watch what they put in their bodies. From my first marathon at age 15 when I tried to deplete and carbo load as a diabetic to my latest marathon at 43 where I tried protein drinks for speedier recovery (chocolate milk is the best thing to have after a run) and tested drinks and gels that would be available to me on the course during the race, diet has eaten up almost as much of my training time as logging miles on the road.

Some Olympians, such as runner Ryan Hall, recently switched to a gluten free diet and improved his times significantly. Other great athletes, including ultrarunner Scott Jurek, are strict vegans. Athletes typically experiment with multiple diet regimes before finding a combination that most efficiently provides them with the nutrients they need to fuel their daily training regimes while safeguarding and maintaining their overall health.

But that is just physical preparation. Physical preparation is a finite area of improvement. You can only hone the ability of your body to such an extent. At an elite level of competition, most competitors operate at a generally comparable level of fitness.

What separates an athlete who hears her anthem played in London and one who vows to get ‘em next time on the way to the locker room lies between the ears. Or, as Yogi Berra said about baseball, 90 percent of the game is half mental. The rigors of focusing on preparation and execution and improvement on an ongoing basis for years with no guarantee of victory or success significantly contributes to making an athlete truly great.

Which means that truly great athletes, like those circling the track in London, become great because, for a period of time in their lives, they did what diabetics do every single day for their entire lives. 

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Camille Nash
Camille Nash
10 years ago

Great post!  This brought to mind Gary Hall, who won 10 Olympic medals and has type 1.  Half of these medals were won after diagnosis when his doctor told him he’d never be able to swim competitively again.  Gary says that having T1 makes him much more attuned to his body than most other Olympic athletes. He’s an amazing inspiration.

Scott K. Johnson
10 years ago

Love this post Alex.  Thank you!  I wish you could have seen the light bulb in my head when I got to the last sentence. 

Jennifer Jacobs
10 years ago

I think that’s a very appropriate analogy — diabetes really is an endurance sport. If only — as you suggest — we had the option of retiring!

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