Diabetic skier motivated by more than self, teammates and country
Kris Freeman was hit by a blood sugar episode during the 30km pursuit
He had to seek sugar from spectators before he could resume the race
Freeman will have one more chance to medal -- the 50km mass start on Sunday
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- From a spectator's view, everything seemed to be going according to plan for U.S. cross-country skier Kris Freeman during the 30 km pursuit on Saturday. A third of the way through the race, he was tucked into the single-file line of about 20 competitors who had broken away from the rest of the pack, just 11 seconds back from the leader.
But when the pack came through Whistler Olympic Park stadium at the halfway point of the race -- where skiiers make a pit stop to change from classic to freestyle -- there was no Kris Freeman in the top 20. Nor in the top 30, or even the top 40.
America's lone hope for a cross-country medal in men's cross country -- Bill Koch's 1976 silver is the only one in U.S. history -- and the only acknowledged Type I diabetic endurance athlete in Olympic history was the victim of a sugar crash. In the span of about three minutes, the 29-year-old Freeman went from cruising smoothly among the world's best to lying down in the snow near the 12 km mark, begging the crowd for some sugar.
"I got a twinge that something was wrong, and then a few minutes later I came to a standstill and went to the side of the trail," Freeman says. "No one was coming to help me, because my coaches werenıt around, and people think I just dropped out of the race, so they wanted to leave me alone."
But Freeman started yelling to the crowd, asking for sugar. A German coach who heard him prodded some spectators to go through their bags, and pretty soon, Freeman has a Powerade and one of the goo packets that endurance athletes use to keep their energy stores up. It was enough sugar to get Freeman up and skiing, and "at that point I was pissed off," Freeman says, "so the last thing I wanted to do was go mope, so I finished the race." A crestfallen Freeman finished in 45th place, nearly eight minutes from the leader.
"Right now, I'm trying to live by the same things I say when I go to summer camps [for diabetic kids]," Freeman says, "which is, 'Don't get angry at yourself when you mess up, move on.' I gotta say at the moment, though, thatıs pretty hard."
Part of the trouble with being the only Type I diabetic Olympic endurance athlete is that you literally are writing a chapter of the sports-medicine book every time out.
Freeman first got the diagnosis during a routine blood test shortly after he began training with the U.S. Ski Team in 2000. The first doctor Freeman spoke with told him that he could continue to ski but that his career at the elite level was over. Freeman says he "wasn't interested at all in skiing at a level below what I was aspiring to."
Three opinions later Freeman found Larry Gaul, a doctor willing to work with him, and now a doctor with the U.S. Skiing's Nordic team. Freeman had to learn quickly which conditions would cause his blood sugar to fluctuate.
"If I get nervous before a race, the adrenaline triggers the release of sugar into my bloodstream," Freeman says. So, for example, he has shelved pounding pre-race pump music in favor of more placid tunes.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Freeman was granted a new measure of control by a pump called an OmniPod that attaches to his arm or chest and can be programmed to automatically deliver small doses of insulin through a needle in his skin.
In conjunction with Dr. Gaul, Freeman has become very adept at taking food and drink during races and at programming the OmniPod appropriately to get him through a race. But he has had time for much more trial-and-error in 15 km races than in 30 km races, where he had the trouble last week. "Obviously, I was on too high of an insulin dose during the race," Freeman says.
In the 15 km at the 2009 world championships, Freeman finished fourth, just 1.3 seconds off the podium. The better he has become, the more he has had to experiment with insulin doses. "I've been pushing the limits more and more because I'm not satisfied with finishing in the 20s," he says. "I can let my blood sugar run a little high and finish in the 20s. But I need perfect spot on control when I'm in the top 10 and top 5; and the smaller target you aim for, the more you miss."
Freeman has one more shot, the 50 km mass start on the last day of the Games to, as he puts it, "show I can ski. I want to show the U.S. Ski Team how I can ski, I want to show the country how I can ski, and more than anything, I want to show the diabetes community whatıs possible. I really did not want to have a blood-sugar episode on the biggest stage. I wanted this to be 'You can do anything with this disease' -- and I still totally believe that -- but there are setbacks along the way. I got one more chance."