NASCAR Driver Austin Theriault: My Thyroid Disease Journey

By: 
EmPower Staff
race car driver Austin Theriault holding trophy

This is an abbreviated version of EmPower’s interview with professional race car driver Austin Theriault, who is sharing his journey as a person with thyroid disease. For the full interview, please visit empoweryourhealth.org.

EmPower: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

AT: My name is Austin Theriault. I turn 26 in January 2020. Ever since I was a kid, basically 13-years-old, I was a race car driver. When I turned 18, I started chasing the dream of becoming a professional race car driver. Since 2013 I have been in North Carolina pursuing NASCAR as a career.

EmPower: How did it all start? Did you race go-carts at first?

"The biggest thing for people to understand is they are not alone and it’s okay."

AT: I started in “middle age” compared to some of the other drivers. I was 13, while some start at eight or nine, and that would be go-carts. Coming from a rural part of the state of Maine, we didn’t have those types of opportunities. I had to wait until I was eligible (by age) to race at the local short tracks.

EmPower: Were you driving full size cars at 13?

AT: I was driving older production cars like Dodge Neon and Pontiac GrandAm, older model Ford Mustangs. That was the early days.

EmPower: So, you are an up and coming race car driver, then life brings out the caution flag, so to speak, when you were diagnosed with a thyroid condition. How old were you?

AT: It was more recent for me. I was diagnosed in 2016. After the diagnosis, I started asking questions. Questions not only about myself but about my family. I asked, “Are there people in my family that might be suffering from this?” And I come to find out that my grandmother may have even had her thyroid removed. So, a lot of struggles in the family when it comes to thyroid and autoimmune issues.

EmPower: Even as your symptoms started to emerge it wasn’t noticed as a family trait?

AT: No, and I always pride myself on doing research, and the diagnosis came a fair amount of time after my symptoms had started. Looking back, I think I had suffered symptoms for about a year or two before (diagnosis).

EmPower: What were those symptoms you mentioned that made you realize there was something wrong?

AT: I think for a lot of people (with thyroid conditions) it is kind of a never-ending fatigue where you may feel good then all of a sudden you have a 100-pound weight, either on your shoulders or you’re dragging behind you… afternoons are very difficult. Keep in mind I am also racing when all of this is happening… there is such an amount of stress and pressure and expectations… part of me was like, “Maybe this is just coming with the territory.”

Around those years, too, I was moving up through NASCAR and getting major opportunities with a lot of expectations and pressure.

Along with that, brain fog was another issue. Another thing that comes up from time to time… people either have anxiety or depression. Some of those symptoms come up from time to time… I think it’s because your body is out of whack and trying to figure out what’s going on.

Luckily, in the scheme of things I caught it pretty early.

EmPower: How frustrating was it? You’re an athlete in a very physically demanding role and position, probably eating right and exercising so you think what is up?

AT: It was very frustrating, the thing I experienced (was) being right on the edge of the diagnosis. If I look back at other yearly physicals where they did happen to take TSH, I was right below the threshold of being able to be diagnosed for that span of 3-4 years. Finally, when it started to get really bad in 2015-2016, I finally went to the doctor, and I was substantially higher than that threshold. So the question is, could I have been diagnosed back then? (That) makes me wonder if there are other people on that sort of borderline where they are symptomatic but it’s not enough for a diagnosis.

EmPower: At some point in your journey you were seeing 1 or 2 doctors, were you referred to an endocrinologist?

AT: I was diagnosed initially by my family physician. I asked for a recommendation to an endocrinologist because I understand that those doctors specialize in thyroid. The doctor referred me to someone close to where I live. So I made that visit and had conversation a little more in depth around how the whole system works, TSH, T3, T4… I think it’s important for people to at least consider that.

EmPower: It sounds like getting that information and being able to sit down to talk with somebody, even if just learning the basics, is pretty important?

AT: I think it goes back to why I’ve been successful in racing, because whether it’s the mechanics of the car or the mechanics of how to go faster, it’s like sometimes a light bulb goes off in my head when I understand something and its explained in a different way. I think that can be the case for a lot of other people. Just that understanding of maybe what’s at stake in how your body works.

EmPower: How do you plan to manage your thyroid disease going forward?

AT: During the summer months, I was finding that when I would race, it was so hot. We know that the thyroid does have an effect on your body temperature, so I was having issues with being able to handle the temperatures inside the car. Having that conversation with my doctor, we were able to switch around the timing of when I would take the hormone and that really did help.

Obviously, it’s a lifelong thing… so what I have to do is try to eat as healthy as possible which can be hard on the road, 3-4 days in hotel. A little bit of cardio to make sure that I felt good. I think that took care of some of the fatigue. I’m going to have to take a blood test every so often, if not once a year, the fact that I’m controlled on the medication now may be once a year. I don’t like the label of saying I have a chronic disease but at the end of the day feeling like I’m not alone in that, like not only are there millions others who have a thyroid condition but there’s perhaps over 100 million in the US that have some sort of chronic condition.

EmPower: What advice would you have for anybody experiencing symptoms like this?

AT: Well the first thing to realize … - and it’s why I got involved and why we are talking today… - the biggest thing for people to understand is they are not alone and it’s okay. The second thing… I think is really important… I’m not sure it gets talked about enough… is being your own advocate. It’s okay to educate yourself a little bit and ask questions – here’s how I’m feeling, telling the doctor that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get a diagnosis. (And) after getting the diagnosis at least feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel... to wake up every day and realize you have a support group around you or somebody behind you in the medical field that has your back.

Austin Theriault is a professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. Follow Austin at www.austintheriault.com, on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter @AustinTheriault