It can be frustrating when someone says you can’t do something because you’re physically challenging. Often times this “can’t” spurs people to defy the odds and find a way to make it happen regardless. That was the case with Phil Southerland. At just seven months old, Phil was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The doctor told his mom that he probably wouldn’t live to the age of 25. But Phil had other plans for his life.
Growing up with diabetes can be a challenge for any child, but Phil learned to control his condition at a very young age, even managing his own treatment regimens. This included checking his blood sugar multiple times a day, taking insulin and managing his diet, and especially exercising. He didn’t let diabetes stop him from doing things he loved to do, like riding his bike.
Phil’s family was always very health conscious, so he felt sheltered from the temptations of junk food during much of his childhood. But temptation got the better of Phil when he was 12, and he tried a candy bar. He immediately hecked his blood sugar after eating the candy and saw that his levels were very high. Phil hadn’t been in this situation before, so he thought he’d go for a bike ride to see if exercise would help. After his ride, he checked his blood sugar again and it had decreased. Phil was impressed how the bike ride had impacted his blood sugar levels and helped his insulin work.
“I recognized how important exercise was for my diabetes management,” Phil says. “Exercise and diabetes really go hand-in-hand.”
That bike ride began a lifetime of cycling for Phil. He was an avid cyclist through college. After one event, another cyclist, Joe Eldridge, approached Phil after he noticed Phil testing his blood sugar. Joe also had type 1 diabetes and the two bonded over the role diabetes plays in their lives and sport. Consistency had always been an important part of Phil’s diabetes management. He tests his blood sugar before and after he rides to maintain control. Joe, however, struggled to keep his A1c under control. Seeing Joe’s inconsistent management of his condition was very distressing for Phil.
“I realized that my friend could die,” Phil remembers. “I knew that I had to intervene.”
So Phil decided to create a challenge; the person with the highest blood sugar would buy dinner. For several weeks, Phil was the clear winner. But the motivation was there. After three months, Joe was finally able to beat Phil in the blood sugar game, and ultimately Phil had to buy dinner. Over the next six months Joe’s A1c dropped from 11.0 to 6.4.
Phil and Joe remained friends through college. During his senior year, Phil was assigned to a class project to create a business. After raising $400, Phil and Joe started Team Type 1, a group designed by Phil and Joe to raise awareness of diabetes. Phil ordered Team Type 1 t-shirts and began selling them to raise money for diabetes awareness. He passed out business cards to spread the word about Team Type 1. Soon after, Phil and Joe participated in a race together and continued to spread the word of Team Type 1 and diabetes awareness. As more people began to hear about Team Type 1, the project took on a life of its own. Phil was defying the odds.
The next step: identify cyclists with type 1 diabetes and build a team. Phil and Joe recruited a team and the group participated in the 2005 Race Across America. Team Type 1 gained prominence for its mission and perseverance with diabetes.
The Team became very successful. They won the Race Across America event four times and hold the record for the fastest trans-continental crossing for the Race Across America. Phil’s vision has come to life and he’s embracing it. His passion for cycling and managing his diabetes has carried him through.
“Exercise is life,” Phil says.
Today, Team Type 1 has grown to become a multifaceted athletic initiative, with seven programs and 70 athletes with type 1 diabetes who regularly race in events across the world. The Team continues to expand, adding new team members and striving toward the ultimate goal of reaching the sport’s grand stage, the Tour de France.
“Team Type 1 has become a global movement to show the world that anything is possible with good control,” Phil describes.
Phil and the Team are currently expanding the outreach of the program internationally. He frequently travels abroad to advocate for diabetes supply coverage and meet with key opinion leaders to raise awareness for diabetes control. Phil spends about 250 days a year traveling to promote diabetes management. He recently visited with leaders from the Macedonian government to promote coverage of supplies. Through Team Type 1’s efforts, the Republic of Macedonia is now providing four free test strips a day to diabetes patients in the country. This is far above what doctors anticipated from someone who was not expected to live to be 25.
“Our goal [with Team Type 1] is to get the world active,” explains Phil, now 29 years old.
When Phil’s not on the road advocating for governmental assistance in diabetes management, he’s traveling to races to cheer on the Team and watch them compete. Team Type 1 remains a successful enterprise that is growing in scope, reach and impact. Phil turned his death sentence into a drive to raise awareness about diabetes and the importance of management and control.
As if running a global sports organization wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Phil also wrote a memoir about his life with type 1 diabetes and Team Type 1 entitled Not Dead Yet. He hopes that his story will inspire others to push the boundaries.
“I think I have the best job in the world, to have the opportunity to ensure that my brothers and sisters with diabetes have the resources they need to manage their condition,” Phil reflects. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
To learn more about Phil and Team Type 1 visit www.teamtype1.org.