Swimming Through a Diabetes Diagnosis


I’m not a fast swimmer, but I can keep going for an hour without breaks. Swimming is my personal triumph. I started swimming laps when I was 18, bored to death on a kibbutz, but intrigued by access to a beautiful year-round pool in the desert sun. I learned that 40 lengths was a kilometer and that became my goal. It was all breast stroke back then.  In my 20s, I improved my free-style until I developed an efficient stroke. In college and grad school, I kept my sanity most semesters by doing laps at the university pools.  In my 30s, I worked up to swimming a mile. When I was pregnant, I swam almost daily at an indoor pool. As I approached my due date, I worried about long swims. If I went into labor, would the swimming have tired me out too much? Or would swimming make me strong and better prepared to deal with labor? I opted for the latter view and swam on the day my labor was induced.

After my son’s birth, I was thrilled to learn my new condo community had an outdoor pool with dedicated lap lanes. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the pool has been my hangout. Each summer I see how quickly I can build up to swimming a mile. That distance took on new meaning when the local watershed council began sponsoring a one mile open water swim in a nearby lake each July. It’s one thing to swim a mile in a pool, with a wall to hold onto if you get tired or goggles loosen. But in open water it’s just me, the lake, and a bunch of aquatic plants.

I successfully swam the lake mile twice (the second time with my 13-year-old son, the “water baby”). The following summer I was hardly ready as the time came for the open water swim. I had only managed to swim a mile once in my pool and my health seemed off that summer.  I still pushed myself, despite the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  I completed the swim, but I did so slowly. It felt like I was swimming in oatmeal. At age 48 I wondered, was I getting too old for such exertion?

After the rough swim, I followed up on an annual ob-gyn exam in which I had reported frequent urination, and had blood work done. Two days later a nurse called to tell me I was a type 2 diabetic with a fasting blood glucose level over 400. I had been in open water, swimming and tempting fate, with raging diabetes. As my new healthcare team worked on my medications and diabetes education, all were surprised that I was a regular exerciser (hiking, walking, strength training), including distance swimming

Receiving a type 2 diabetes diagnosis didn’t stop me from swimming and exercising, but throughout the next year, I worried about hypoglycemia during my workouts. I took shorter hikes that fall. After thirty minutes of cycling on hilly roads, I stopped and tested; running low, I popped a small Larabar. I brought my blood glucose monitor to the pool, had emergency snacks close by, and generally played it safe.

When it was time for the next annual lake swim I was worried about a hypoglycemic incident in the middle of lake. Would I recognize the difference between feeling tired versus a rapidly dropping blood sugar? If I was experiencing a low, how would I treat it in the water? I worried and planned for a couple weeks before the swim. My plan that day was to test my blood glucose just before swimming, and eat a small snack if I was low. And finally, I stuck two glucose tabs in a small ziplock and tucked that in my swim suit. (What if the bag came loose from my suit? I gave that a practice outing in the pool.  It stayed put.) I successfully crossed the lake and back, felt fine, and when I got back to land, my blood glucose was good.

Last month was my sixth year in a row of taking part in this swim, made a bit more poignant by the fact that it was the third anniversary of my diagnosis.  I’ve been swimming a lot this summer. A week before the lake swim I swam 1.25 miles, so I was feeling strong and confident as I made my way to the lakefront. It was a perfect morning, sunny and warm. Joining my annual swim buddies, I dove in from the dock and stroked away towards the buoys that mark our route. My arms, core and legs could handle the swim just fine. My biggest worry was some lake weeds.

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Helen Wilde
Helen Wilde
9 years ago

fabulous story, thanks so much for sharing. from another swimmer with T2.

9 years ago

Nice essay, and congratulations on getting back to your swim routine.

Dan Roth
Dan Roth
9 years ago

A terrific and inspiring little essay. Thank you for sharing your story.

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