When Sir Steve Redgrave was diagnosed with diabetes 20 years ago at the age of 35, he thought it would mean the end of his rowing career.
He was training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at the time, having won gold at the previous four games, and didn’t think he’d be able to compete with a potentially debilitating illness.
He remembers: “I almost convinced myself that my rowing career would be over. I was very matter of fact about it and quite level-headed. I hadn’t had a bad career – six times world champion and four times Olympic champion. That’s how I looked at it.”
It came as a surprise, then, when his consultant, Dr Ian Gallen, said there was no reason why he shouldn’t be able to achieve his dream of rowing at the Sydney games. Nothing was mentioned about winning a medal, however, never mind a gold one.
“Ian gave me the confidence that he knew what he was doing,” remembers Redgrave. It wasn’t until years later that he found out that Gallen had scoured the internet after a call from Redgrave’s GP to look for sports people with diabetes. He found just one – Gary Mabbutt, a footballer with a very different training regime to that of a rower. Redgrave adds: “Never once did he let on that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”
Despite this, the pair had to navigate a host of challenges – for example, Redgrave had to get used to injecting insulin and regularly changing aspects his diet to keep up with his gruelling training regime. His first race as a diabetic was shown live on the BBC. “[Gallen] watched it at home and describes it as a Doctor Who moment. He said he was hiding behind the sofa peering over, wondering what was going to happen. That’s how he described it to me, after I had won my Olympic gold medal, not before.”
It wasn’t until Redgrave attended a conference soon after he retired from competing that he realised just what he had done – with Gallen’s help and guidance – in terms of pushing boundaries. A member of the audience stood up and told him he was lucky to have achieved so much. He says: “My first instinct was: ‘You cheeky so and so. I’ve had to work hard for this’.” The delegate went on to say that had Redgrave turned up at a different clinic, he might not have received the same care and been able to win his fifth Olympic gold medal. “That was an eye-opening moment for me. Up until that time, I didn’t know anything different. I was lucky that I was sent to [Gallen’s] clinic and not somebody else’s.”
Redgrave has seen diabetes care change almost beyond recognition since he was first diagnosed. “I think it gets better year on year. Look at the technology – it’s gone from syringes of insulin, to a pen system to a pump system. Now we have self monitoring with blood sugar patches. I think it’s easier.”
Despite all the advancements, Redgrave insists that effort must be made to keep raising awareness of diabetes. He says people are being diagnosed all the time but might not be aware of all the secondary health problems associated with it; the condition, for example, is the biggest cause of loss of eyesight. Then there is the significant number of people living with diabetes who don’t yet know it. “We’re finding people all the time. We’ve all got to be aware of the issues.”
He recognises the role the NHS has to play in the UK. “The system always needs to be improved but there is a cost implication as well. There’s a balance to what you can do … Should it be better? Yes, but there is a reality to it as well.”
He adds: “I think the NHS is amazing. Is it underfunded? Yes. Is it struggling? I see it from two doctors in my family.”
Perhaps Redgrave’s most salient point is that diabetes shouldn’t hold people back. “Ten years ago, I did Race Across America – it wasn’t normal for a diabetic to go and do something like that. Now mothers of young children with diabetes think their son or daughter could be an Olympic gold medallist. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes as an athlete, you know of my story, of Gary Mabbutt and you’re thinking ‘Why not?’.
“Until someone is breaking down a barrier in some way, you don’t know what the possibilities are. People will go on and do greater things than I’ve done with the condition.”
- Sir Steve Redgrave has partnered with Specsavers to support Diabetes Week 2018
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