Diabetics on the road to inspiration

PHOTO: Diabetics on the road to inspiration

As a semi-professional cyclist, Chris Williams is used to overcoming obstacles and pushing past boundaries, both physical and mental.

Yet nothing in his five-year career could have prepared the Australian for the winter of 2009.

Competing in the Tour of Gippsland in south-east Victoria, the then 27-year-old collapsed after completing one of the tour stages. Yet the fall was to be the least of his problems.

Medical checks would reveal a chilling prognosis: Williams was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

"The doctor told me I should give up cycling and that was the end of my career," said the Brisbane native. "It was a depressing time and I was going to sell my bike and quit the sport."

His then team-mates at the Merida Australian Road Team refused to allow him to wallow in self-pity though, and within a month, Williams was back on his bike and defying doctor's orders.

"People have told us about the things we can't do but we're here to prove that it's possible and hopefully inspire fellow diabetics," said New Zealander Aaron Perry, 27. He too was diagnosed with diabetes 11 years ago but is now a team-mate of Williams on Team Novo Nordisk (TNN).

The duo are in Singapore to attend the ongoing International Diabetes Federation-Western Pacific Region Congress held at the Suntec City Convention Centre.

Established in 2005, TNN has over 100 athletes - all with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes - in its various programs that range from triathlon to mountain biking while its pro cycling team is the world's first consisting entirely of riders with Type 1 diabetes.

They hope their story can spur diabetics in Singapore - where the number of adults with the condition rose from 8.2 per cent in 2004 to 11.3 in 2010 - to lead an active lifestyle.

Based in America and Europe during the cycling season, which runs from January to October, Williams and Perry are domestiques in the 18-man pro team roster.

They have raced in major events like the Tour of California, one of the biggest events on the American circuit, and the Tour of Denmark and Tour of Britain, important legs of the International Cycling Union Europe Tour.

Spending hours in the saddle every day can make it difficult to manage Type 1 diabetes - where the body does not produce the insulin needed to convert glucose to energy - but not impossible.

During races, they use a monitoring device fixed to their body to track their glucose levels. Other than food to correct the blood sugar levels, they also carry insulin pens in their pockets which can be used to inject the hormone into their system - while racing.

"Obviously you can't stop and do this or you're going to fall behind," chuckled Williams.

While stage wins and trophies might be elusive, success is measured in other forms of currency for TNN.

Said Williams: "We meet a lot of young kids who struggle with diabetes and we try to remind them that they should never stop chasing their dreams."

The year 2021 has long been the TNN's target. It will be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin and they hope to field a rider with diabetes in that year's edition of the Tour de France, one of the world's most gruelling races.

But suffering is a language Perry, who broke his pelvic during a race in Hainan earlier this month, is fluent in. He said: "Pain is something we live with. But it shouldn't stop you from doing what you love."

jonwong@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 22, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.