Olympian and diabetic, Hall closes curtain on swimming career
U.S. Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. will announce his retirement on Nov. 15
A winner of 10 Olympic medals, Hall was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 1999
He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for diabetes research and support
Celebrity public appearances don't usually require much sweat and toil. Say a few words, take a few pictures, sign a few notepads. Some are self-indulgent; others promote worthy causes. Few are strenuous, or memorable, even those buffeted somehow by visual aids. The inspirational messages at these appearances don't usually last. "You can do it, too," says someone who can dunk from midcourt, bench press a truck or outsprint a gazelle. Sure we can.
But go back to an event at a New York hospital's diabetes institute in March, when Gary Hall Jr., a swimmer with 10 Olympic medals on his résumé, was addressing kids in the type of medical room they've seen too often. "Excuse me," Hall told them. "I think my blood sugar may be a little off, so I'm going to give myself an injection."
For every athlete who has ever rolled up his sleeves at one of theses functions, Hall has you beat by a stroke. This dose of insulin, one of half a dozen he was taking each day, was a lifesaver, as it often was for his school-aged audience. If there was some sense of embarrassment associated with ducking out of class to take an injection or just the annoying redundancy of the routine that takes them away from something else they'd rather by doing, this was no big deal. Hall could say to them, "When I'm not training for an Olympics, I have to do this just like you."
In a year when Michael Phelps put records on the moon and opened his own medal emporium, it would be a shame to overlook the announcement Hall will make on Saturday that his Olympic career is behind him. Hall may never really retire from swimming as an activity any more than he'll put down his guitar. And now that Dara Torres has extended the lifespan of aquastars into their 40s, Hall doesn't seem as far over the hill at 34. But he is ready to finish his career of sprinting against the world's elite. He won five gold medals over three Olympics and he has been a thoughtful and refreshing nonconformist in a sport that could use more of them. These days, he's designing his own line of suits -- not the space-aged NASA inspired models designed for speed, but casual ones that have an aura of cool about them, as Hall surely did.
The often predictable swimming world didn't know what to make of his colorful bravado. When other swimmers would stretch their legs against the starting blocks during pre-race warm-ups, Hall would sometimes start shadow boxing. Before the Sydney Games in 2000, Hall was asked how the U.S. swimmers would fare against the host Australians. He remarked that he thought the Yanks would "smash them like guitars." After the Athens Games in 2004, USA Swimming fined Hall $5,000 for wearing a boxing robe and shorts instead of the national team colors. Yet a few months later, the federation presented him with an award at the Golden Goggles, its annual Oscars, for his outstanding work on behalf of diabetes research and prevention.
The road to Hall's greatest achievements got bumpier in March 1999, when he began experiencing blurred vision and extended bouts of fatigue that impacted his training. He started losing his breath after simple wind sprints and found he needed more water than usual after workouts -- a fact he initially attributed to the dry air at his Arizona training site. The diagnosis of diabetes, the disease that afflicts 18 million Americans, was devastating. The implications were dire for the swimmer who had won four medals at the Atlanta Olympics and was primed for others: the potential for blindness, long-term kidney failure and a shortened lifespan. The immediate implication was even more crushing: no more high-level training and no more Olympics. "It was like being shot through heart," Hall recalls. "How could it be? I was an athlete. I wasn't finished doing what I do."
Hall found doctors who felt he could not only manage his disease, but also continue to train for the Olympics. He moved to Miami Beach and started an international swim group called Race Club that drew both domestic and international Olympic aspirants. His events, the 50 and 100-meter freestyles, required acute care. The 50 is swimming's answer to drag racing, with no time to take a breath or worry about pacing and negative splits.
To regulate his blood sugar levels, he would need five or six daily injections of insulin, the hormone needed to transfer glucose from the blood to the body cells. He'd test his blood sugar with a pin needle eight times a day, although he would sometimes increase the frequency to once an hour on competition days, since the stress brought on by the anticipation of his races could increase the fluctuation of his blood sugar level.
With his Type I diabetes under better control, Hall competed in two more Olympics than anyone thought he would. He tied teammate Anthony Irvin for the gold medal in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games, where he won three other medals, and captured the 50-free four years later in Athens with a winning time of 21.93 seconds, a mere hundredth of a second ahead of silver medalist Duje Draganja of Croatia.
After stepping away from racing for two years, Hall resumed training and finished a respectable fourth in the 50-free at the U.S. Olympic trials this summer, ending his bid for a fourth Olympic berth. During that time, he expanded on the Gary Hall Jr. Foundation that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for research and support of those afflicted with the disease.
"Diabetes may be a part of your life," he says, "but it doesn't have to ruin your life. It doesn't have to take away goals. Everybody has something to deal with. Sometimes we choose our adversaries; sometimes our adversaries choose us. We're trying to break down a stigma that diabetes is a liability. If I'm able to make that diagnosis less scary for one kid, it's more meaningful than winning any medal."
Hall fields random emails from diabetics every day. Every day he answers. On Monday he read off one he'd answered 15 minutes earlier from a teenager afflicted with the disease. "I don't know who else could understand where I'm coming from," the letter read in part. "Don't give up," Hall answered. "Without long drops, the ride wouldn't be as much fun. I deal with this every day. You can, too."
So on Saturday, when he talks about his new life at a swim clinic and diabetes fundraiser at Drew University, Hall will still dive into new challenges. He'll support group called Inspired by Diabetes encourages kids to express their emotions about the disease through art and writing, tackling a challenge head-on the way a shadow boxing swim legend might have done it. The sprinter is in this for the long haul.