Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall, Jr.
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Back from the Edge
Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall, Jr., thought diabetes would end his swimming career. He talked with C.F.K. magazine in Fall 2000 about how he found new strength instead—and performed better than before!
Q: Your parents were both swimmers, your father an Olympian. Does that make it easier for you to be an elite athlete?
It made it easier to accept the sport.
I have early memories of being around swimming and around my Dad competing. I just naturally grew up with it, and never really thought it was a big deal to be in the presence of Olympians because he was an Olympian, and his medals were hanging on the wall. Because of his involvement in the sport, I just naturally grew up with it.
Q: What challenges did you face as a kid? Did you know all along that you wanted to become an elite athlete and a swimmer?
No. I went through a lot of indecision. I think that's fairly common for kids. I didn't have any particular direction and really wasn't interested in swimming. I preferred basketball. When my father became involved in starting up a swim club, I decided to start swimming competitively. The swim club was located between my home and school, so it was just too convenient for me not to participate. After a while I developed friendships on the team and really enjoyed the competition and the experience.
Q: You've had diabetes a little more than a year. How's it going with control and treatment?
When I was first diagnosed, it was difficult. There was a learning curve. I was able to learn quickly, but a lot of it was by trial and error. For example, at a restaurant, because food isn't labeled, I had to find out what foods work best for me. Now I feel I have better control. The longer I have diabetes, the better control I have. I read as much as I could and researched diabetes on the Internet. I learned quite a bit that way. But there were still times when I misjudged. I experience the highs and lows that everyone with diabetes does. But, with my training schedule, it's difficult for me to prepare my own meals. I recently got engaged, and my fiancée is very helpful. She has learned as much about the disease as I have, and she helps me out in the kitchen.
Q: What was the diagnosis experience like for you?
It was a shock. It was a disappointing, terrible experience—very frightening. It took some time to accept it and come to terms with being diagnosed. I thought diabetes was a disease that happened to older people who had neglected their health over the years. I didn't have a good understanding. I didn't understand why it had happened to me. I had spent my whole life exercising and eating right. I didn't abuse myself. As I learned and read more I had a better understanding that it could happen to anybody. Now I do what I've always done. I eat right, exercise, take nutritional supplements. They told me it's possible I may have had it for a little while, but could have managed it without even knowing it. But Type 1 catches up with you.
Q: Did you think about quitting swimming when you were diagnosed?
It was so disappointing. I was told it was the end of my swimming career. It's hard to argue with a doctor. That was what was very disturbing. I had dedicated my entire life to the sport and competing. To hear that swimming was over was even more devastating than learning I would have to live with this disease the rest of my life. I was very upset. And I had recently been through other obstacles.
Q: How has it affected your swimming?
After the diagnosis, I took a couple of months off and allowed myself to experience the pain and discouragement that comes along with being told that you're sick. After a few months, I decided I would give swimming a try again. I gave my coach a call and told him that I'd be willing to try. I also got in contact with a different doctor. She [Dr. Ann Peters] was great. She said, "I really think you can do this. There's no reason why you couldn't." That was so encouraging to hear a doctor say that to me. It was nice to get a second opinion and get some words of encouragement.
So, I trained for a few months. Five months after being diagnosed, I won National Championships with a career best time. At that point, I realized that even with the highs and the lows, I was still going to be able to continue with my life and be able to accomplish as much as anybody else. I was very fortunate to have found Dr. Peters. She has been so instrumental in my overcoming this.
The only other doctor I had spoken to had told me "no way." The Olympic trials are the second week of August. Right now I am just consumed with the Olympics and training—my prospects are very good.
Q: How do you accommodate diabetes and how has it affected your swimming?
I train eight hours a day, with four practices. My mornings include dry land exercise, such as jumping, running, medicine balls, followed by swimming practice. In the afternoon, I lift weights and swim. As I get closer to the meet, I won't train as much, because it is exhausting and I want to have the energy to race well.
I do have better control, but some of the problems come with the training. There's the inconvenience of being interrupted during long swimming practices—I'll have to go out and test my blood sugar and make sure that I'm not going too low. Sometimes I'll have to eat something in the middle of practice. I just have to be constantly aware of my diabetes. When I'm practicing for eight hours a day, that often means I have to get out and check my blood sugar.
At the competitions it's easier. I have to pay very close attention before the race, and make sure an hour before the race that I'm exactly where I need to be. I'm constantly in long practices, and must be constantly aware.
Q: So, you get better at control with time?
Yeah, it becomes part of the routine. People ask me if it's difficult giving yourself shots and how often I have to do it. I tell them and I see this shock on their faces. When I see other people's reactions, it's a reminder of what it was like before I had to do injections. Now it's just a part of my life and routine.
Q: You were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but not until you were 19. Looking back, how do you think that affected you as a kid?
I was the daydreamer in the classroom, often wandering off. But when it came time to do something, I was able to really focus for only a short period of time—but I was able to get stuff done. I tried taking Ritalin. I didn't like it though. It felt like it had taken away my creativity. I remember one time I was driving and realized I had been staring at the license plate in front of me for three miles. This is not good—with Ritalin, I was too focused and not on important things—so I stopped taking it. As long as I don't have to sit in a classroom for an hour to an hour and a half, there's no problem.
Q: How has it affected your diabetes?
The ADD made it difficult to follow a routine and maintain a strict schedule. Adopting a schedule and routine was difficult—that is, being precise about not only the amount [of insulin] that I was giving myself, but the time I was giving it to myself, what I was eating and exactly how much and when. That was difficult because I wasn't used to it.
Q: What would you say to other people like yourself who are newly diagnosed? What have you learned through this experience?
Being diagnosed with diabetes is a scary experience. It's difficult and it's okay to be scared. I feel very close to anyone who's been diagnosed. I may not know them, but I know the traumatic experience they've been through.
What's important to realize is that it doesn't have to be the end of your active life. You can go out and do as well as anybody out there, at whatever sport you play, as long as you have proper maintenance.