A day for a competitive swimmer can start as early as a 5am practice. Our alarms go off, most likely more than once and then we roll out of bed, put on our suits and get out the door. When we get to the pool we’re tired but that’s expected at 5am. We hop into the pool and swim a countless number of strokes until the sun comes up. Our shoulders are sore, our stomachs are empty, and our eyelids are drooping. But we pull ourselves out of the pool to do it all again in a few short hours.
The thing about being a swimmer is that as much as it is physically demanding it is even more mentally exhausting. There are definitely days when I’m so sore I can barely lift my arms out of the water, times the ice bath makes me feel as if my body is freezing to the side of the tub, and practices that take everything out of my body. But the harder times are when I resist pushing snooze one more time, fight through one more set, and make sacrifices that I hope will pay off later.
This is the life of a swimmer.
My alarm goes off at 3am. I groggily open my eyes, shut off my alarm and stare at the ceiling, but before I can even open my eyes I feel the low and subconsciously make the decision to reach for a juice box. Some nights I don’t need an alarm to wake me up though. I wake up drenched in my own sweat, shaking and confused. I don’t need a drop of blood to tell me that my blood sugar is low. Out of instinct I reach for a juice box with my eyes still shut and lay in my bed, trying to stay awake until I feel better. The next time I open my eyes I hear the familiar sound of my alarm; I feel as if I’ve only blinked. My body is sore, my stomach is empty and burns from the juice box I drank a few hours ago, and my eyelids are drooping. But I roll out of bed, stick a needle in my finger, drink another juice box, draw up a syringe of insulin to stick in my leg, put on my suit and get out the door. When I get to the pool I’m tired but that’s to be expected after being up all night. I hop into the pool and swim a countless number of strokes until my body begins to tingle and my mind begins to wander. I pull myself out of the pool and as I stand up, feel light headed and shaky. My mind says get back in the water but my body says get another juice box. I sit on the side of the pool with my third juice box of the day in one hand and a chocolate milk in the other, impatiently waiting to feel good enough to get back in the pool. I stand up still feeling like I could pass out but know that I won’t, a feeling so uncomfortable yet so familiar, and dive back in to finish practice. As the sun comes up my body is weak, my stomach is full, and my eyes are barely open. But I pull myself out of the pool for the second time this morning and get ready to do it all again in a few short hours.
The thing about living with diabetes is that as much as it is physically demanding it is even more mentally exhausting. People always want to know if it hurts. When they ask this, they’re talking abut the needles and I’m thinking about all the things that are sharper than needles. The needles aren’t the hard part. The harder part is combatting the ignorance surrounding diabetes. The harder part trying my best and it still not being good enough. The harder part is controlling my own external organ. The harder part is knowing that the medicine keeping me alive could also kill me. The harder part is working against a disease that is all encompassing and never getting a break from it. The hard part is telling myself that I can keep going and making myself believe it.
The thing about being a swimmer with type 1 diabetes is that as much as it is physically demanding it is even more mentally exhausting. Swimming while feeling as if I could pass out any second and feeling incredibly weak definitely take a toll on my body. But the hardest part is feeling that way and swimming anyways, and knowing that no matter how hard I try in the pool it takes constant work out of the pool just for me to be able to go to practice every day. The hard part is giving it my all and knowing that no matter how hard I try not to let it, sometimes diabetes does hold me back.
Despite the challenges that diabetes presents to my life, the physical demands have shown me that my body can handle the hurt so that when I swim I can push past the pain and block out the physically demanding to fight the mental exhaustion.
There are a lot of things sharper than needles. The needles aren’t the hard part; they just give me a thicker skin to deal with the hard parts. It isn’t about what hurts and the presence of pain, it’s about finding a way to get past the pain and numb the hurt.
This is the life of a swimmer with type 1 diabetes.
This is my life.
Maggie Ericson is a college student-athlete at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. She has been swimming competitively since she was nine years old and was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when she was six, in 2003. She works hard to not only advocate for diabetic athletes but to be one herself. She is a Global Ambassador for Team Type 1 which allows her to bring together two big parts of her life: swimming and type 1 diabetes. As challenging as living and being an athlete with T1D can be, she works hard to make the most of it.