SUMMIT COUNTY — Racing, whether professional or recreational, is all about challenge and achievement. The USA Pro Challenge is an example of an international audience watching professional athletes test their limits against themselves, their competitors and punishing mountain terrain.
For Team Novo Nordisk, personal challenge is an especially important focus. The team is the first all-diabetes pro cycling team, and the Pro Challenge is their unified debut.
All of the cyclists on Team Novo Nordisk are Type 1 diabetics. Some have been racing professionally for years, while others are in the midst of their first pro year. All of them have two missions — to prove their prowess as athletes in spite of their diabetes and to win.
Dealing with diagnosis
More than 340 million people worldwide live with diabetes. There are two main types of diabetics — Type 1 and Type 2. The athletes on Team Novo Nordisk are Type 1. This means they must check their blood sugar and administer insulin by injection several times per day. Failure to properly manage diabetes can result in health issues such as sight loss, heart and kidney disease and, in extreme cases, amputation.
Team Novo Nordisk was formerly known as Team Type 1 — which competed in the Pro Challenge last year — although only a handful of the members were diabetics. This year, the team is composed entirely of Type 1 diabetics and has been renamed Team Novo Nordisk to reflect a recent partnership with the global health care company.
Phil Southerland is the mind behind Team Novo Nordisk. Diagnosed with Type 1 at only 7 months old, Southerland has spent his entire life with the condition and found biking as a way to manage his health.
“Cycling has enhanced my relationship with diabetes. The discipline needed to ride a bike transferred very well to diabetes and vice versa,” Southerland wrote in an email. “Being active on a regular basis made managing my diabetes much easier, which in turn made my ability to succeed in life possible.”
Each of the team members has his own diagnosis story. While the details are different, the resulting attitude is the same — it’s no big deal.
“As soon as it became a routine, it wasn’t a big deal anymore,” said Joonas Henttala, who hails from Finland and joined the Team Novo Nordisk development last year. “I don’t think about it anymore, like I don’t think I’m different from anybody else. It’s just part of me.”
Although the athletes decided that diabetes would not change their lives drastically, much of the world, including the professional racing world, did not see things the same way.
David Lozano, who was just recently diagnosed at the end of 2011, felt pressure from the sports industry to give up on a professional career.
“They said, ‘You cannot race anymore,’” he said, but asked if he ever considered quitting, he quickly responded, “Never.”
Henttala also ran across diabetic discrimination and, while competing at the amateur level in France, hid his condition whenever possible. Now, he calls Team Novo Nordisk “my savior” and is excited to show what he can do.
“I think it would have been almost impossible to get a pro contract for this year from another team,” he said, “so this was the opportunity, so I had to take it.”
With the all-diabetic team, Southerland hopes to show the sporting world that discrimination against athletes with diabetes is unnecessary.
“For a long time, diabetes has been seen as a great weakness, and in sports, weakness can halt success,” he wrote. “In this day and age, that is completely untrue. We are proud to play a role in reversing that trend. If someone has the discipline to be a great athlete in any sport, they know they have to manage diabetes in order to not let their teammates down.”
Inspiring others and each other
The members of Team Novo Nordisk share a lot — passion for biking, competitiveness, training schedules and managing their diabetes. Because all of them understand their condition and have to deal with it on a daily basis, the team support system is strong.
“We use diabetes as the single unifying point for the team,” Southerland wrote. “I hope this team can be a unifying point for the diabetes community to rally around and break down barriers that have existed for the last 90 years.”
Henttala agreed that sharing his thoughts and experiences with his teammates has helped him.
“I learn, every day, something new,” he said. “Everyone is different. You get different kinds of perspectives.”
The team is also hoping to change the perspectives of the spectators. Already, several members have been hearing from fans who have been inspired by their success.
“I feel important because there are millions of diabetics, (and) they are following me,” Lozano said. “I receive a lot of (messages) via Facebook and it’s really inspiring for me, also.”
Lozano hopes to further show his prowess in the Pro Challenge. In addition to helping his teammates, “I also want to do some breakaways, and if I can, to try to fight for the mountain jersey,” he said, referring to the King of the Mountain challenge, which rewards the fastest biker on steep uphill climbs with a red polka-dotted jersey.
Team Novo Nordisk presents a unified front, both on and off the course. Each of them is geared up to win, and each is determined to prove that being diabetic does not define them as athletes and is merely another challenge to overcome.
“If you want to do it, you can do it. It’s that easy,” Lozano said.
And for Team Novo Nordisk, it is.