A chance to encourage millions
Gary Hall Jr. won two gold medals and two silver medals at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The 26-year-old American was part of the 400-meter medley relay team that set a world record. And his split in the 400-meter freestyle relay was the fastest relay split in history at that point. The 6-foot-6 Hall is now training for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Check out Hall's diary every other week on CNNSI.com.
June 14, 2000
I was diagnosed with diabetes. My first reaction was a desire to fall down, even though I was sitting. I couldn't believe it. I thought that diabetes was a disease that happened to old people who had neglected their health for years, more years than I had been alive. I let out a sigh of defeat. A hopeless void filled my inside, and all I could do was sit in disbelief. I was upset. Upset like mad. Upset like disturbed. Upset in every sense of the word. I was furious. I was depressed, dumbfounded, and horrified. I was really scared.
I was a blank on the outside, asking the doctor, "What does this mean?" An abbreviated explanation was given that diabetes is a disease that affects the pancreas, a squishy organ, probably gray in color, that monitors the level of insulin within the body. Insulin converts food into an energy that the body can use. Diabetes means that the pancreas has been "offed." It's dead or dying. The good news is that there have been tremendous steps taken in the past 20 years in treating the disease. The bad news is that you need medicine. Daily. By injection. Or you will die.
So I was sent to an endocrinologist. It was here that I was informed that my swimming career was over, at least as I knew it. Exercise is good, but in moderation, which oddly enough was the only way I exercised before. I was desperate. Exasperated. I wanted to lunge at the doctor with my teeth. I wanted to defy him. I wanted to defy the disease. But didn't know if I could. I had no idea what I was up against. I had decided that I needed a vacation.
The endocrinologist actually called my grandmother, as well as my parents, to keep me from going to Costa Rica. But I went anyway. I packed up my insulin, my needles, my dog and girlfriend and headed south. I gathered as much information as I could before leaving. It was in Costa Rica that I did a lot of reading, and it was there that I began to have a better understanding of what diabetes was all about. I often times felt destructive. When these feelings came about I would calm myself by swimming in shark-infested waters, hoping for the worst. More than once the sharks would bump me from the break of a wave. Then I would return to my bungalow and learn more.
At first, all I could read were the horror stories of people who had lost their sight, lost their legs, lost their kidneys and liver to diabetes. "But other than that, everything else is fine" -- and that was from the motivating section. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness and the leading cause of amputation. Each year, 162,000 people die from diabetes; that's more than AIDS and breast cancer combined.
As time passed, I came to terms with my disease. I knew that I must accept the circumstances and deal with it. I had no choice. Accept the cards you're dealt, or fold. I had been through so much in the past, had overcome so many obstacles. This was just another to be hurdled.
I returned from Costa Rica with a sense of peace. I immediately sought out a new doctor and was lucky to find the best, Dr. Ann Peters out of UCLA. I met with her and discussed the possibilities. She was so encouraging. First of all, I had to fly in to see her. I was an hour late (flight delay) and she had an appointment on the other side of town. So she says to come with her. How many doctors would do that? I spent the afternoon with her driving around Santa Monica in her VW bug talking about what should and could be done.
I was going to give swimming a try. I called my coach Mike Bottom who was up in Berkeley, California. I told him that I wasn't sure if it was going to work. Many times it didn't work. Practice was constantly interrupted with blood tests. Dr. Peters flew up to Berkeley to monitor and observe. The training went on for a couple of months; in swimming this is considered a very short season. Five months after being diagnosed with diabetes, I won nationals. Not only did I win, but I dropped .13 of a second. Now .13 of a second doesn't sound like a lot of time, and actually it isn't. But .13 of a second was the difference between the gold and silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics. And I came away with the silver medal. So to me, .13 of a second is a huge deal.
It was at this point in my career of life that I realized the opportunity that had presented itself. I realized that I had a chance to encourage millions of people living and suffering with diabetes. What I had done, and what I could do might offer hope to people of all ages that had experienced that awful diagnosis and the pains that followed, a hope that would somehow alleviate the feeling of helplessness and defeat. If I am able to do that, for just one person, it would be so much more of an accomplishment than anything I achieve in the pool.
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