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Athletes with Diabetes

By David Mendosa

Last Update: December 1, 2006

The father e-mailed the International Diabetic Athletes Association as soon as he got home from the hospital. He had just left his teenage son devastated from the diagnosis that he had diabetes. His son was sure that he would never play sports again.

‘The things they have overcome!’

The association's executive director Linda McClure wrote right back. But the father didn't get the message because he was back at the hospital the next day.

"He was anxious," McClure remembers. "So one of the Certified Diabetes Educators at the hospital suggested that he call."

When he did, McClure immediately sent him an information packet. It included a list of athletes who have diabetes as well as the organization's newsletter where he could read about people who hike 1,000 miles or climb mountains even though they have diabetes.

Most parents and individuals with diabetes aren't as quick to respond to the diagnosis as this father. But eventually thousands call or write.

The International Diabetic Athletes Association has almost 3,000 members in the United States and Canada and others in Europe. It's located in Phoenix, Arizona, because the organization's founder and president, Paula Harper, a marathoner who has diabetes, lives there.

"Her doctors couldn't tell her what she needed to do to run marathons," McClure says. "So they told her that she shouldn't be running them at all."

McClure herself is also an athlete who happens to have diabetes. Her sport is cycling.

Even though the organization's home is in Phoenix, it has an international reach through its Web site. Now in its second year on-line, the site will soon expand to include fuller versions of articles in the organization's newsletter that have to be trimmed in the print publication. The site will also include a list of famous athletes who have diabetes.

Who are the most famous athletes who have or had diabetes, whether or not they were members? When I asked McClure, she hesitated, noting that it is of course a subjective decision.

Some of the names she mentioned were indeed unfamiliar to me. But I had no trouble recognizing the name of Ty Cobb, one of baseball's all-time greats, professional tennis player Arthur Ashe, and boxer Joe Frazier.

The organization's big annual event is its conference. McClure says that they are hoping for 200 people to show up for the 11th annual conference from May 7 to 9 in Scotts Valley, California.

A conference highlight will be the awarding of three $5,000 scholarships to people with diabetes who excel at different exercise programs. LifeScan sponsors the awards.

Having read all the applications, McClure says that they are wonderful stories. "These people are just amazing! The things they have overcome!"

The organization's membership includes athletes across the board, she says. "There isn't a sport that we don't have covered with our membership."

What does the organization do for them? "First, we have good information for people on how to start an exercise program," McClure replies. "If your doctor recommended that exercise should be a component of your diabetes control, this is the information you need to get started—what the complications can be, what you can do to protect yourself, the things you need to look for when you're starting."

Other help is aimed at teenagers with diabetes, their physical education teachers, and coaches. "We are hoping that this information will quell the worry that a coach might have about a kid with diabetes on their team," McClure says. "We are hoping that with this information kids won't be sidelined by coaches who have a fear of diabetes."

I think that we can be sure that the teenager whose father immediately called the International Diabetic Athletes Association for help won't be one of those kids who was sidelined because of diabetes. Hopefully, it won't be long before no one will. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.


Jay Leeuwenburg is an inspirational role models for athletes with diabetes. Having led a successful athletic career in the NFL himself while managing diabetes, Jay knows of the challenges all people with diabetes must face. He now lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is a neighbor of mine, and spends a lot of his time mentoring young children with diabetes who aspire to be professional athletes. His new book is Yes I Can, Yes You Can.

Further Update

The new name of the organization is the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association, and is no longer the International Diabetic Athletes Association. DESA is now located in Nashville, where Paula Harper lives. Linda is no loger associated with the organization. DESA has been holding many terrific conferences and meetings world wide on both the science and practice of diabetes and exercise. The organization also produces a quarterly newsletter. The organization's 2007 annual conference will be held in Colorado Springs, June 28 to 30, 2007. The conference is for anyone interested in learning about the latest in diabetes treatment and technology, fine-tuning their diabetes management with exercise, exchanging views with fellow athletes at all levels of skill, and meeting new friends you never knew before. For further information check the organization's website or call 1 (800) 898-4322.

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