Gary Hall's Toughest Competitor: Diabetes

The Olympic Hall of Fame swimmer advocates for more research, better treatment for type 1 diabetes.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

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Gary Hall and JDRF

These days, Hall remains every bit as driven, but his focus has shifted. Now, his goal is to improve the lives of people with diabetes. "I'll challenge you to find a more active advocate in the world of diabetes," he says, the same kind of pride audible in his voice as when he talks about his swimming career.

As a member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Government Relations Committee, Hall travels around the country advocating new therapies for the estimated 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 do not produce enough insulin, a hormone needed by the body to use blood sugar (glucose) for energy. Though type 1 used to be known as juvenile diabetes, it can be diagnosed in adults, like Hall, too.

One of his pet projects is the artificial pancreas, a breakthrough system that continuously monitors blood sugar levels and automatically releases insulin to accommodate changing blood sugar levels. He wants to work with insurance companies to get this product to patients who need it. "We need to get this out there as quickly as possible," he says. Hall has also testified before the Senate, encouraging lawmakers to renew the Special Diabetes Program, which funds diabetes research as well as treatment and prevention programs for Native Americans.

Gary Hall Teams Up With Sanford Health

When he's not focusing on advocacy, Hall serves on the Sanford Children's International Board, a part of Sanford Health, the nation's largest nonprofit health care system, which provides medical services to rural communities. Sanford has several diabetes clinics and is engaged in research to find a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Hall also promotes a line of nutritional supplements designed to enhance athletic performance. And he's a consultant for a diabetes documentary tentatively titled Big Shots, profiling famous athletes and musicians with the disease, to highlight the realities of living with type 1 diabetes. Hall says the goal is to release the film in November, coinciding with American Diabetes Month.

These days, what time Hall does spend in the pool is usually in the company of his two children, ages 4 and 6. Yet he's not pushing them to follow him into the Olympic record books. "I'm more interested in teaching them the proper form of the cannonball," he says.

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WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 15, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

Gary Hall Jr., Olympic swimmer; member, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Government Relations Committee.

JDRF: "Type 1 Diabetes Facts."

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