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.
Heart attack, stroke, blindness, amputation, kidney failure. When doctors describe these diabetes complications, it may sound melodramatic -- like an overblown worst-case scenario. The truth is, these things can happen when blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol are out of control.
"A lot of people don't really think it will happen to them," says David C. Ziemer, MD, director of the Diabetes Clinic at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. "For a lot of folks, the wake-up comes when they actually...
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.
Good to Know is a new feature that allows members of the community to answer questions from WebMD experts, doctors, staff, and other community members. We're testing this new feature and we'd like your feedback.