Skip to content

Diabetes Health Center

Gary Hall's Toughest Competitor: Diabetes

The Olympic Hall of Fame swimmer advocates for more research, better treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Font Size
A
A
A
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It was the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Eight of the top swimmers in the world were lined up, ready to hit the pool for the 50-meter freestyle. The buzzer sounded. They propelled themselves into the water. In just under 22 seconds, the race was over. American Gary Hall Jr. had won gold, tying with teammate Anthony Ervin for the medal.

Only a few elite athletes can claim a gold win at the Olympic Games, but what makes Hall's achievement even more exceptional is that he did it only a year after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time, his doctors had told him he'd never swim competitively again.

Recommended Related to Diabetes

Managing Diabetes With Exercise: 6 Tips for Nerve Pain

What kind of exercise is safe -- and fun -- if you have nerve damage from diabetes, called diabetic neuropathy? And how can you stay motivated after that first flush of inspiration fades? "It depends on where you're starting," says Dace L. Trence, MD, an endocrinologist and director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. "For the person who has been doing nothing, you would certainly want to start doing something that's comfortable and enjoyable and...

Read the Managing Diabetes With Exercise: 6 Tips for Nerve Pain article > >

His reaction? "Despair. Utter despair," he says. "You spend so much time dedicated to fine-tuning your body to be able to compete with the best athletes in the world, and to have your body fail you at a young age -- it's scary." Hall was 24 at the time, and had no family history of the disease.

The news was devastating to someone who has, as Hall has said, "chlorine in the bloodline." His father, Gary Hall Sr., was a three-time Olympian who competed on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team along with Hall Jr.'s maternal uncle, Charles Keating III. His mother was also a nationally ranked swimmer. All six of the Hall children were expected to swim, which Hall Jr. began doing competitively by his early teens.

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he swam away with two silver medals, but he was still reaching for gold. "Winning an Olympic gold medal is the pinnacle, I believe, in any athletic endeavor," he says.

Training With Diabetes

Training for the 2000 Olympics while enduring diabetes symptoms like blurred vision and crippling fatigue wasn't easy. "It was baby steps from the very beginning," he says. "We did it through trial and error. There weren't any books on how to win the Olympics with diabetes."

Step one was to get through an entire swim practice, testing his blood sugar and injecting insulin whenever he needed it. By small increments, he gradually increased the length of his workouts. "This was something that wasn't new to me, testing the boundaries of human capacity. The disease certainly put a twist on that, but I was still interested in identifying what the limits are."

Hall far exceeded the limits his doctors had put on him. Not only did he compete in the Olympics with type 1 diabetes -- which had never been done before -- he won a total of 10 Olympic medals, including five golds, and set new speed records. After retaining his title in the 2004 Olympics, Hall retired from competitive swimming in 2008, at 34. In May, he was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Check Your Blood Sugar Level Now
What type of diabetes do you have?
Your gender:

Get the latest Diabetes newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Low
0-69
Normal
70-130
High
131+

Your level is currently

If the level is below 70 or you are experiencing symptoms such as shaking, sweating or difficulty thinking, you will need to raise the number immediately. A quick solution is to eat a few pieces of hard candy or 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey. Recheck your numbers again in 15 minutes to see if the number has gone up. If not, repeat the steps above or call your doctor.

People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

Congratulations on taking steps to manage your health.

However, it's important to continue to track your numbers so that you can make lifestyle changes if needed. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

Did You Know Your Lifestyle Choices
Affect Your Blood Sugar?

Use the Blood Glucose Tracker to monitor
how well you manage your blood sugar over time.

Get Started

This tool is not intended for women who are pregnant.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

Diabetic tools
Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and more.
woman flexing muscles
10 strength training exercises.
 
Blood sugar test
12 practical tips.
Tom Hanks
Stars living with type 1 or type 2.
 
Woman serving fast food from window
Video
Can Vinegar Treat Diabetes
Video
 
Middle aged person
Tool
are battery operated toothbrushes really better
Video
 

Prediabetes How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
Article
type 2 diabetes
Slideshow
 
food fitness planner
Tool
Are You at Risk for Dupuytrens Contracture
Article