12 Aug 2020
Whether winning five gold medals or punching a shark, Gary Hall Junior was one of the USA’s highest-profile swimmers across three Olympic Games. That he topped the podium while also managing type 1 diabetes makes his story all the more remarkable. Now he is offering an Olympian & Paralympian Online Experience – a 60-minute one-on-one Zoom call in which he offers advice and guidance on “Competing with Type 1 with a Gold Medallist”.
Gary Hall Junior is smiling as he shares a memory some 20 years after winning men’s Olympic 50m freestyle gold.
“At Sydney 2000, I was healthy enough to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games… but not healthy enough to be able to purchase health insurance,” he says, shaking his head.
Behind the humour is a story of refusing to take no for an answer, and of driving forward research into a medical condition that looked likely to end his career.
Hall’s first Olympic experience had come four years earlier. He was already a double world champion when he went to Atlanta 1996, finishing the Games with four medals – relay golds in 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley, and individual silvers in 50m and 100m freestyle.
With his showbiz-style entrances to the pool deck and approachable manner the then 21-year-old was one of US swimming’s most recognisable stars as he turned his attention to the Sydney Games.
Preparations were going smoothly – there was another World Championship gold in 1998 – when in March 1999 Hall’s world was turned upside down. Struggling to understand why he was feeling constantly fatigued and permanently thirsty, the swimmer took a trip to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“I’d spent my life dedicated to my body, to human performance, minding my health, eating right and exercising,” Hall says. “The diagnosis came out of nowhere, there was no family history. I was shell-shocked. I had no idea what it meant. I was displaying all the classic symptoms – continual thirst, frequent urination, weight loss, irritability, fatigue, trembling hands, blurred vision. It eventually caught up with me and I collapsed.”
Advised by his physician that his swimming career was over – “You need to be thinking about kidney function, about not getting your feet amputated” – Hall set about finding answers to his multitude of questions.
Research eventually led him to respected endocrinologist Dr Anne Peters, and a new outlook.
“I give Dr Peters so much credit for empowering me,” he says. “It wasn’t a message of, ‘Hey, you can do this’. What she said after our first consultation was: ‘It hasn’t been done before. But let’s give it a try’. I didn’t need a locker-room-style uplifting speech, I needed someone to give me permission to try. I had to learn to train all over again. So many changes had to be made to accommodate this condition. I was able to do that to the extent that, within a year-and-a half, I was competing in Sydney. When I was diagnosed in March 1999 nobody had competed at the Olympic Games with type 1 diabetes, I became the first athlete to do that in any sport.
“Then I became the first athlete to medal with type 1 diabetes. The team I had supporting me really empowered me. The way we managed my diabetes to achieve that success has changed what is now taught in medical school.There was no literature, and very, very few resources available about how to manage diabetes in sport. There is much more now, but still not enough.”
For people with this life-changing condition, there could be few greater, or more passionate, advocates for not letting it hold you down or define you. During his Online Experience, Hall talks through his coping strategies and ways to live successfully with diabetes. While stressing that he is not a medical professional, he does point towards tools and technologies that can transform lives, as well as offering tricks and tips around training and competition.
“It’s a message of hope,” he says. “The new technologies and therapies that are emerging are so encouraging. There’s a lot of people out there, and a lot of them are at a loss. People think it’s the end of their sporting career. Through my advocacy work I’ve worn two hats. One is for newly diagnosed patients and their families, saying, it’s not that big a deal. You’ve got great tools at your disposal and if you’re aggressive managing this you can do whatever you want to do”.
“The other is shedding some light on the severity of the disease. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, of lower-limb amputation, of kidney failure. These complications are real. After a diagnosis you’re reeling. Families need some reassurance, someone to let them know they can be OK.”
Now living in Los Angeles and bringing up two children – a 14-year-old daughter and a son of 12 – on the day of our Online Experience Hall has recently returned from a spear-fishing expedition, bringing to mind the occasion in 2006 when he had to manhandle a shark that was menacing his sister.
“I’m happy to talk about the shark attack as part of the Online Experience,” he laughs. “And about my adventures at the Olympic Games. But there’s so many athletes out there who have type 1 diabetes that this seemed like a great opportunity to reach out to them. I have it, and I’ve been able to compete at the world’s highest level. If I can do that then it’s OK for an eight-year-old soccer player or an athlete at a high-school state meet.”
“Competing with Type 1 with Gold Medallist” is part of the Olympian & Paralympian collection of Online Experiences available in partnership with Airbnb, providing athletes with the opportunity to earn additional income, as they share their passion and stories with people around the world.