The Slopes to Success: US Olympic Cross Country Skier Kris Freeman's Story

It’s a clear winter morning and Olympic cross-country skier Kris Freeman is ready to hit the slopes. The 2011 Skiing World Championships are just months away, and he is determined to ski his very best at this event. Kris waxes his skis and checks all of his equipment to make sure he’s ready before starting his run. He has his helmet, goggles, and ski poles ready, and for most skiers, that’s the last stage. However, Kris has one extra step. He has to check his insulin pump. Although Kris trains as a cross-country skier every day, 365 days a year, he also has to manage his type 1 diabetes every day, 365 days a year.

Cross-country skiing is a rigorous sport, but it can be even more challenging when you have diabetes. A skier since the age of two, Kris has learned to overcome the obstacles of skiing. It is an intense physical and technical sport that requires an extreme amount of endurance and dedication. For Kris, skiing is a full-time career.

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Every skier dreams of one day making it to the big stage – the Olympics. Kris is no exception. He was invited to join the 2002 US Olympic team as a cross-country skier at the age of 19. Kris was on top of the world and eagerly moved to Park City, Utah, in 2000 to prepare for the Olympics. But he noticed that something was different. His vision was blurry, he was urinating more frequently, and he was tired. Skiers often experience these symptoms during intense training, so Kris figured that these conditions were because of his tough training schedule. He continued to train for the Olympics but found it to be much more difficult than he expected.

During routine blood tests required to train for the Olympics, the doctor discovered that Kris’ blood sugar (glucose) was very elevated at 260 mg/dL.

“The doctor told me I had to see an endocrinologist [en-doh-kri-NA-low-jist], and I said, ‘Endo what?’”

Kris went to the endocrinologist and was promptly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. During his initial visit, the doctor was somewhat hesitant about Kris’ ability to participate in cross-country skiing.

“Basically, all I heard at that first meeting was ‘diabetes’ and ‘career over.’”

But why should it? Why should that stop Kris from pursuing his dream? He told his coach about his condition and received support from the vice president of the US Olympic team to carry on. He continued to train for the Olympics and started learning about new treatments and other athletes that have type 1 diabetes, including Olympic swimmer, Gary Hall, Jr.

“The way I confront something is to learn the most that I can about it.”

Kris found an endocrinologist who believed in his dream and he worked with the Olympic team’s doctors to manage his training schedule and diet.

“The biggest change I made was really overhauling my diet.”

Kris started studying the glycemic index food chart. He memorized the carbohydrate levels from the chart, evaluating all of the food he ate. He learned to figure out the amount of carbs in a meal just by looking at the plate. Kris also started focusing on better protein intake and higher fiber intake. As his diet became more balanced, Kris was able to use less insulin to control his diabetes.

“By eating food as close to its natural form as possible, it was easy to manage my sugar along with insulin.”

From the Course to the Camps

Kris has a story to tell and he likes to share his experiences with others. In 2002, Kris teamed up with Eli Lilly and Company to participate in diabetes summer camps for children. These camps help children with diabetes learn to manage the condition and allow them to connect with others who are facing similar challenges. For many kids, these camps provide a break from an often harsher environment, where schools often do not understand how hard it is to manage diabetes as a child. There is a good ratio of medical staff to campers, which allows everyone to receive the attention and care that they need.

Kris sets aside two to three weeks each year to travel to different diabetes camps to share his story with the campers, their families, and staff. He talks about managing his condition and the challenges he’s faced along the way.

Kris encourages the kids to take care of themselves and know that although diabetes can be a scary thing, it is treatable. “There is really almost nothing you can’t do if you put the effort into it.”

Kris says that he thinks most kids are most successful when they are told what they can do and how they can achieve it as opposed to what they can’t do because of diabetes. He also talks about the chances they have to improve their diabetes because of new technology and treatments that were not available when he was diagnosed.

The campers often ask questions and he is happy to provide insight, but Kris says, “It is amazing what the kids are able to teach me. They inspire me.”

Limitless

Although it’s been 10 years since Kris was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, he still faces new challenges every day. He wears a special insulin pump 24 hours a day that does not have any exposed tubing so that the insulin will not freeze when he is skiing. Kris has practiced using the pump during training races to find the best basal insulin rate to control his levels. But for Kris, diabetes hasn’t limited his abilities. It has given him the motivation to work harder and stay healthier.

“I really don’t think diabetes has hindered me very much,” Kris says. “The more energy you put into treating yourself, the more you’re going to get back in your life.”

Just two years after being diagnosed, Kris won the Under-23 World Championships, which was the proudest moment of his career. He was a member of the 2002, 2006, and 2010 US Olympic Ski Teams and has placed fourth in the Open World Championships twice.

When he first heard that he had diabetes, Kris admits, “My first thought was ‘How can I keep skiing,’ not ‘This is serious and could hurt me.’ These thoughts showed me how important skiing really was to me.” Kris isn’t giving up on his dream. He continues to inspire people of all ages with his story.

“I don’t think of myself as a diabetic first. I think of myself as a cross-country skier.”