For most of us in the U.S., November means Thanksgiving, football rivalry games, the beginning of college invitational season, and/or crazy fast high school meets. However, less well-known is the fact that November is also American Diabetes Month. We at SwimSwam want to take this opportunity to recognize the swimmers who bravely battle this disease every day and still thrive in and out of the pool.
When I think “swimming” and “diabetes,” the first thing I think of is Gary Hall, Jr.’s remarkable comeback from a 1999 type 1 diabetes diagnosis to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 50m freestyle in 2000 and 2004. His story has inspired millions – swimmers and non-swimmers, diabetics and non-diabetics alike. And then, more recently, we heard about the teenage Brazilian sprint superstar-in-the-making, Matheus Santana, who had to miss Junior World Championships because of diabetes-related health concerns. But for more stories of grit, determination, and triumph, we need look no further than the current population of swimmers fighting every day both to stay healthy and to reach the top of the podium.
One such swimmer is Hannah Vester, currently a sophomore at the College of William & Mary. And though her Olympic gold medal haul may not – yet! – rival Hall’s, her story is just as lustrous. More than that, it’s a story of abounding joy for the sport, tireless dedication to learning new ways to manage the disease as an athlete, and unending generosity in helping others like her.
Hannah was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in January of her junior year of high school, unusual given that most type 1 diabetics are diagnosed as young children. In the month leading up to her 4-day hospitalization, she recalls being constantly sluggish, fatigued, and nauseous. She drank 6-10L of water per day to unending thirst, and she ate enough meals every day to make Michael Phelps blush. Her blood sugar had climbed dangerously high, and because her body couldn’t process the energy she was consuming through food, her body began to break itself down for fuel – in a 2-week period, she lost 15 lbs.
By January 2011, after a month of unexplained and unrelenting symptoms, her family decided she needed a blood test to see what was going on. Hannah recalls coming home from a swim meet on a Saturday afternoon (during which she drank 4 large gatorade bottles full of water) and taking an at-home blood glucose test. Normal blood glucose is in the 70-120 mg/dl range. Hers? Literally off the charts at over 600. She was admitted to the hospital that night at 10pm and by that point finally knew – she had diabetes.
“Am I going to be able to swim anymore?” This was her first question for the doctor, who told her he’d “never met anyone who had to stop doing a sport because of type 1.” She worried, though, that he might not be understanding the demands of her training. Between her admission to the hospital on Saturday night and when she finally left Wednesday at 5pm, she and her parents had to learn everything there is to know about managing diabetes. “I had to learn how to be a diabetic and a diabetic swimmer at the same time,” she says. In just a few days, her life changed forever, but she wasn’t about to let that keep her from the sport she loves.
That Saturday, just 2.5 days after her extended hospital stay, she competed at her high school conference meet, where she won the 200 freestyle, 100 butterfly, and 2 relays. She didn’t swim her best event, the 500, because she wasn’t sure what it would do to her blood sugar. It was an emotional scene in particular for Hannah and her parents, who knew everything she’d been through in the past month. Not only did she show up, she won everything she swam – and for the 2nd year in a row (she’d return the next year to complete the hat trick), she was voted swimmer of the meet. Exactly 1 month later, Hannah again outdid herself at her high school state meet by placing 7th in both the 100 and 200 freestyles, still choosing to forego her specialty, the 500.
Hannah suddenly had to think hard about what she was going to eat before/during/after meets and practice. Adding complexity to the situation was the fact that she’s a distance specialist, and blood sugar can take a dangerous plunge during such a long exertion. If your blood sugar is high, she explained, the events hurt more. “It feels like you just swam a 200 freestyle, and you haven’t even started yet.” Ouch. The icing on the cake is that adrenaline inhibits insulin, thus negating any efforts to manage blood sugar. So things are worst when the stakes are highest – a cruel reality of being an athlete with diabetes.
Lest anyone think this had Hannah discouraged, she hastened to tell me that in spite of everything, “it’s kind of fun.” Her diabetes makes her successes all the sweeter. “If I did really well, it’s like, I did really well, and I have diabetes!” (Emphasis hers)
Over the three years she’s been adapting to her condition, she’s become an expert on her disease and specifically what her body needs to be able to perform. Far from shying away from the longer events, she’s thriving in them: Hannah set the freshman record in the 1650 at CAAs last year and became the first swimmer ever from William & Mary to compete at Open Water Nationals. She explained how she managed such a long race: “I ate half a Costco muffin right before the race.” There you have it. She stuffed 4 packs of fruit snacks into her suit, and her coach watched her with binoculars the whole time to make sure she was OK. Her blood sugar dropped throughout the race, but she finished it problem-free and possibly with a bigger smile on her face than anyone else in attendance.
Hannah is, appropriately, studying to be a doctor – but it’s something she’s wanted to do for a long time, inspired by her father, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Her time in hospitals has just confirmed what she already knew. “I want to go into pediatrics,” she says, practically beaming through the phone as she tells me how much she loves kids. She’s one of those rare people who actually enjoys being in hospitals. he loves all the tests the doctors run and the good feedback she gets from being diligent about her treatment.
What’s most remarkable to me about Hannah, even in light of all her accomplishments in the water, is her fierce dedication to helping others with the disease. Just months after her diagnosis, Hannah volunteered to be a counselor at a Camp Korelitz, a residential camp near her hometown for kids living with diabetes. This summer will mark her fourth year in a row working at the camp. “It’s 250 kids for one week … test strips and juice everywhere,” she says with a laugh. “I never pictured myself as someone other people would look up to.” About the disease, she says, “You just gotta take it in stride.” Wise words from the college sophomore, who routinely helps kids accept their condition and empowers them to thrive. Hannah is also a fundraising force to be reckoned with. At the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) Ride to Cure Diabetes in Nashville this year, Hannah and her mother rode 100 miles and raised over $21,000 to help find a cure for type 1 diabetes. If that sounds like a lot of money, it is – it was the second-highest total for an individual for that race and took a year to raise.
In talking to Hannah, it was easy to forget that she’s just a sophomore in college. She seems so poised, and she has a precocious wealth of physiological knowledge about her disease – knowledge that no doubt helps her continue doing all the things she loves without missing a beat. But that’s not to say that things never get difficult for her. “It gets really, really frustrating sometimes,” she says, recalling days when she hasn’t been able to get her blood sugar up during practice. “But I use the three minute rule. You can be upset for 3 minutes, but then you have to get over it,” explains Hannah. “Everything is manageable, it’s just how you choose to view the situation,” she adds. It’s obvious how Hannah chooses to view her situation – it might be hard, but she’s chosen to fight through it and stay positive. Her advice to other diabetics? “Don’t ever give up.” In this, Hannah’s actions speak even louder than her words.