What happens when you’re diagnosed with diabetes? Does that mean that your opportunities in life will always be limited, and that it will hamper your efforts to reach your dreams?
Not according to two of the cyclists from Team Novo Nordisk, the world’s first all-diabetics professional cycling team.
Aaron Perry and Justin Morris were in Kuala Lumpur for the first time recently to attend the Advancing the Frontiers of Endocrinology in Southeast Asia (AFES) Congress, and to share how they overcame the challenges of diabetes to achieve all that they have.
‘Barriers are just challenges to be overcome’
When Justin Morris was 10, his parents noticed that he was often tired and lethargic, and went to the bathroom a lot. They brought him for a medical check-up and that was when his whole world came crashing down around him. He had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and his childhood hopes of becoming a fighter pilot were dashed.
Yet today, at the age of 29, Morris stands triumphant as one of the professional cyclists with Team Novo Nordisk, the world’s first all-diabetics professional cycling team. The team has consistently finished among the Top 10 in the toughest races and tours around the world.
“When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I was devastated. But, as I grew older, my dreams changed and my focus shifted from what I couldn’t achieve as a person with diabetes to what I could. There is so little in life holding people with diabetes back, the world is our oyster!” he said with passion.
The Australian, who grew up in Sydney, first got into cycling when he was in school. “I used to be teased when I took the bus to school. Then, I started riding my bike to school and it put a smile on my face. I arrived at school happy. I enjoyed it and began to cycle more and more, and I fell in love with the sport,” he enthused.
He also enjoys other fun outdoor activities like mountain biking, bushwalking, abseiling, rock climbing, and skiing, and has proven that having diabetes doesn’t mean the end of all of one’s dreams.
The energetic young man no longer sees living with diabetes as an obstacle, but rather a challenge.
“I’ve been racing bikes for nearly 20 years now and there are many challenges. It was very hard for me in the first few years as a diabetic to figure out how to manage my blood sugar levels. But once I worked it out, I realised that what people called barriers – like people telling me I shouldn’t be doing such strenuous activities – are not really that at all. If you love something and are willing to work hard, you’ll soon see that barriers are just challenges to be overcome.”
“Also, when I’m at a race with 150 other cyclists, everyone has their own challenges, and the sport itself is a huge challenge. As a diabetic cyclist, I need to think about my blood sugar level, which other cyclists don’t have to think about. I’ve to constantly check my blood sugar levels and be aware of what I’m eating and how many calories I’m burning. I manage this through injections of insulin,” he explained.
“I’ve learned to sense when my blood sugar levels are getting low. Athletes with diabetes need to be more cautious about carrying food. That’s why my pockets are always full, especially when I’m training five to seven hours a day,” he added.
Morris, who just got married in September, said that his life dream is to “keep living a happy life with a happy wife”. “Morgan makes me happy and keeps my life in perspective. She’s very smart when it comes to nutrition and food, which has a big impact on my life. I used to eat a lot of unhealthy stuff because I thought I could just burn off the calories. But she got me thinking more about what I eat and how to manage my blood sugar levels, and she encourages me to be more disciplined in how I take care of myself.”
After three years with the cycling team, when he had the privilege of competing in races on all five continents in the world, he completed his professional career at the end of 2014.
When asked where his favourite places to cycle are, Morris, who now lives in Michigan in the United States, said he loves to cycle there. “It’s very cold and in winter, I ride special snow bikes with fat tyres. We take part in races on the snow as well.” He also loves to go biking in Tasmania as there are fewer cars there.
Morris has just completed his studies in psychology. He hopes to specialise in sports psychology and help other athletes.
His inspirational message to diabetics is: “It takes a hero to deal with diabetes, and diabetes will only ever choose a real hero.”
‘I have lived to ride’
Aaron Perry has been riding ever since he can remember. “My dad bought me my first mountain bike when I was six and since then, I have lived to ride,” he enthused.
He started road racing at the age of 13, and was well on his way to professional racing. But his dreams were dashed when he was diagnosed with diabetes as the age of 16.
“I thought I would have to give it all up,” he said.
Then, three years ago, things took a turn for the better when he discovered Team Novo Nordisk. The team CEO Phil Sutherland emailed him.
“They found me through my mountain biking background and I thought it was a good opportunity as I’ve never let my diabetes get in the way in the past,” he explained. “It gave me hope that if other diabetics were competing to such a high level, then maybe I could do the same, and I started riding again.”
Perry was offered a place on the team and took the opportunity to sign up with them.
“It was the best thing I could ever have done. My diabetes is under control. I’m feeling healthy again, and I love riding and racing again,” said the 28-year-old.
When asked about the obstacles he faces as a cyclist with diabetes, he said: “As a Type 1 diabetic, I try to be very aware of my body. In every sport, athletes know their body inside out. I see it as an advantage because I know my body well and use that knowledge to enhance my performance on the bike.”
“Team Novo Nordisk’s slogan ‘to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes’ helps diabetic cyclists to embrace their condition and not see it as something that holds them back,” he added.
Perry, who was in Malaysia for the first time recently, to attend the endocrinology congress, said that he likes “anything outdoors”.
“I grew up as a mountain biker and it involved a lot of cross-training, which included road cycling and endurance training. It was really a dream come true for me to be able to pursue a professional contract in cycling,” he said.
The New Zealander grew up in Rotorua. “Some of the best mountain bike trails are just a few minutes from my doorstep and they are spectacular.”
Although he had to retire from professional cycling after a major accident a year ago, he is getting into cycling again, but just for fun and not competitively yet at the moment.
“My goal in life is to be successful at whatever I put my hand to, and to give everything my 110%,” he said enthusiastically.
His encouragement to people with diabetes is: “Don’t let it stop you doing whatever you were doing before, and be sure to keep as active as you can.”
Team Novo Nordisk is a professional cycling team that has participated in some of the biggest races in the world. Everyone in the team has to deal with the challenges of being a diabetic as well as being a professional athlete.
The professional cycling team was founded to raise awareness on the condition and has consistently finished among the Top 10 of the toughest races and tours around the world. They are an example of how far one can go while living with diabetes and the goal of the team is to join the Tour de France in 2021.
The team’s mission is to inspire, educate and empower people affected by diabetes.
Besides the profesional cycling team, the global sports team also comprises the development team, junior team, women’s team, mountain bike and cyclocross team, running and triathlon team and Type 2 team.