PARK CITY, Utah (June 4) – Olympian Kris Freeman (Andover, NH) could have easily given up his dreams when a doctor told him that he was a type 1 diabetic and would no longer be able to be an endurance athlete.
“I was devastated and I was crying, but I also went out and trained that afternoon,” Freeman says of his diagnosis at the age of 20. “I wasn't going to give up after that.”
And Freeman did not give up. He refused to. In fact, it was his determination, which led him through two Olympics, made him the first U-23 World Champion, and helped him to set a SuperTour record with 23 wins as the only endurance athlete with diabetes competing at an elite level in skiing.
But, with the recent advancement of insulin delivery devices and glucose monitors, Freeman is capitalizing on a unique opportunity he has to test his performance at different insulin levels.
“As an endurance athlete, you're always trying to keep lactic acid out of your system,” Freeman said. “We've seen a correlation where if my blood sugar is too high, which is caused by low insulin, my lactate level spikes. So having high blood sugar causing you to make more lactic acid is not a good thing.”
Freeman has worked with Eli Lilly, a company that produces insulin for diabetics, and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's sport science department to find how best to be an elite athlete with diabetes. Recently, Freeman spent two days under the observation of USSA physiologists. Each day, they simulated an impossible-to-finish cross country race on a treadmill while testing his blood for lactate and glucose levels. On day one, he was given his normal amount of insulin, and on day two, he was given twice the amount.
“We're trying to figure out how much insulin I can race on to help me buffer that lactic acid,” Freeman said.
On day one of his testing, Freeman straps into a pair of boots that attach at the front to a rod with two wheels on it – a cross between a rollerblade and a cross country ski. He wears a harness attached to the ceiling of USSA's training facility and begins to race on the treadmill.
After 20 minutes and 30 seconds of pumping his legs uphill, Freeman goes stiff and the spinning treadmill throws him back. The harness catches him as he slumps, pulling him onto the treadmill. His blood sugar levels and lactate levels are high, as was expected.
Day two looks and feels the same, but he has twice his regular insulin level in his blood. He races, looking just as strong as he did the day before, but this time, Freeman is thrown from the mat at 20:45. As they calculated it, USSA's physiologists discovered Freeman's performance was increased by nine percent from the day earlier – a large difference for a cross country athlete.
“It was very clear that I've been racing on too low of an insulin level. When we raised the level, my lactate was lower, my perceived effort was lower, and I was able to go further,” Freeman said. “What we're doing here is on the cutting edge of what's possible.”
Freeman plans to use what he learned from his summer testing for next season as he continues to push himself to be the best in his sport despite his illness.
“I'm hoping to be able to race as fast as I can and this is a tool that I have,” Freeman said.