Even before Kris Freeman could walk, he could ski. Kris’ father pulled him along in a sled until the age of two when he began shuffling around on his own skis. By the time he was five, Kris was already skiing competitively. Fast forward to the 2014 Olympics where Kris competed in three different races, showing that he has not let anything, including his diabetes, get in the way of his Olympic dreams.
In 2000, while attending the University of Vermont, Kris was invited to train with the U.S. Ski team at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City.
“You are training harder than you ever have in your life, so the ski team is vigilant about giving you routine blood tests and one of things they check is glucose,” explained Kris. “They gave me a blood test and my glucose came back at 240, which is obviously not in the range you expect to see for an elite athlete.”
Kris was immediately taken to an endocrinologist who diagnosed him with type 1 diabetes within five minutes.
“In retrospect, I was clearly showing some classic signs of [type 1 diabetes] – I was hungry a lot, very thirsty, going to the bathroom frequently, and my vision was blurry sometimes,” he recalled.
Similar to other athletes with diabetes, Kris’ doctors told him he would be only able to continue skiing as a club level skier and that the Olympics were no longer a realistic goal.
“I was absolutely in shock, but the very first thing I thought was ‘can I still go to the Olympics?’ I had all of these negative messages coming at me, so I learned as much about the disease as I could,” commented Kris.
While researching diabetes, Kris came across some of the recent advances in diabetes technology, which led him to believe that it was still possible to pursue his Olympic dreams.
“I was looking at new insulin, pumps, continuous glucose monitors and that made me think the advice and information I was given was not up to date with what was currently available,” explained Kris. “I don’t know if I would be able to do what I do 35 to 30 years ago, but now as a four-time Olympian, I am very sure that I can.”
Kris worked with a U.S. Olympic physician who supported his goals and together they devised a diabetes management plan that enabled him to carry on skiing at a competitive level.
Part of this plan included the use of a patch pump, which does not use any tubing at the infusion site. This is crucial for Kris because as a cross country skier, he competes in colder temperatures that create the possibility for the tubes to freeze. With the patch pump, Kris’ body heat is able to keep the pump warm and this eliminates the risk of the pump malfunctioning during a race. Along with the pump, Kris uses a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that provides him with better control over his diabetes during races as well as in his day-to-day life.
Kris’ hard work combined with improvements in diabetes technology proved to be successful as he competed in the nine, 18 and 31 mile races at the 2014 Olympics.
Outside of his Olympic training, Kris finds time to visit diabetes camps as a way to help dispel the notion that diabetes will inhibit people from accomplishing their dreams.
“I encourage kids to go after whatever it is they want to do in life,” said Kris. “I also express that management is critical – I’ve never had an A1C over seven and part of the reason that my diabetes doesn’t get in the way is because of tight management. If can do it, then I know they can do it as well.”
Kris also stresses that while he is the first endurance athlete with diabetes to compete in the Olympics, it is still a learning process and everyday he learns something new that makes it easier to manage his diabetes.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned a lot of things,” he said. “I know someone is going to follow my footsteps and do it a whole lot better than I am, and I look forward to seeing what approach they use to do that.”