Utilizing Sport as a Means of Challenging the Status QuoFriday, August 03, 2012
Whether it`s questioning his own medical providers or the discriminatory practices committed against fellow people with diabetes (PWD) in other countries, Team Type 1 CEO and co-founder Phil Southerland challenges the status quo and helps people with diabetes see they can be the change they want to be.
By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net
Stubbornness and determination are two personality traits that are important threads that run through Phil Southerland’s life.
Southerland credits his mother, Joanna, for both traits. Southerland (pictured here) was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a seven month old. When the doctor told his mother that the young baby would probably be stricken with complications at an early age and likely die as a young man, she refused to accept this prognostication. Instead, she began to find doctors who could assist them and researched strategies in which she could help her young baby avoid his predicted fate.
Her refusal to accept the conventional wisdom at the time rubbed off on her young son who in turn developed a stubbornness and questioned medical authority, and it helped him to begin to chart a course of his own toward a dual career of sports combined with advocacy.
The seeds of his own determination are best told in a story from when he was a young boy. When he was 7 years old, Southerland and his endocrinologist had an honest discussion about the nature of complications. The endocrinologist—who Southerland credits for his forthrightness with him—told him that it was vital for Southerland to lower his A1c number or Southerland would eventually develop complications. When the endocrinologist began to explain some of the complications Southerland could encounter, he was most fearful of losing his sight.
It was right there in the endocrinologist’s office that Southerland made a conscious decision to lower his A1c. He then went about the hard work associated with achieving this very goal. Every few months, he kept going back to his doctor and asked if he would go blind. The endocrinologist would tell him his A1c was still too high. After his third visit—several months after the initial conversation about complications—the doctor told Southerland he had lowered his A1c enough that he wouldn’t go blind.
Exercise, and specifically cycling, has been a tremendously important part of Southerland’s life and again he credits his mom for getting him to be active. As a kid, he initially enjoyed the sense of freedom being on a bike gave him—along with this type of exercise affording him the ability to eat the occasional candy bar. Yet, cycling evolved into something he truly loved.
As he grew up, Southerland also remained focused on his own management and maintained tight control of his diabetes. It wasn’t until a chance meeting with another type 1 cyclist that began the genesis of his organization, Team Type 1.
The Team Type 1 organization was founded by Southerland along with Joe Eldridge, after meeting at a cycling race many years ago. Southerland religious with his disease management met Eldridge, who self-admittedly, was very casual about his diabetes care.
From that initial meeting and their eventual friendship spawned Team Type 1—a group of type 1 cyclists riding to show that people with diabetes could do bigger things. A few years later, Team Type 1 won the Race Across America, a cycling event racing across the United States.
|Team Type 1 co-founders Joe Eldridge (left), and Southerland.|
They went on to win the event three out of the five times they entered and still hold the course record.
Today, the organization has grown from its roots of a very small group of cyclists with type 1 diabetes to include other types of athletes with diabetes. Team Type 1 has marathoners, triathletes, and even has a group of type 2 athletes.
The pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, has been a corporate sponsor for six years now.
Southerland remains passionate about winning to spread the message of self empowerment as well as advocating for people with diabetes globally. It is this latter aspect that has been keeping him busy most recently. For example, last November, Team Type 1 raced in the Tour of Rwanda and presented 35,000 test strips and 400 blood glucose meters—donated by fans and supporters of Team Type 1—to Rwandan children.
DiabetesCare.net sat down with Southerland to talk about his mom’s support with his disease management; the importance of exercise; Team Type1’s sporting and organizational goals; and the emerging role his organization plays in global diabetes advocacy.
DiabetesCare.net: How did you first get into cycling and what is it specifically you love about it?
Southerland: I had always been an active kid. I took part in almost all the sports a normal kid takes part in. Biking was happenstance. I realized after I had a candy bar my blood sugar went up sky-high. I found out when I went out and rode my bike for a few miles after eating the candy bar, it would bring my sugar down. I started riding initially to eat a candy bar, but I also enjoyed the freedom of being on a bike—and I didn’t have to take shots. That was liberating.
DiabetesCare.net: Race Across America was the first event you and Team Type 1 co-founder Joe Eldridge did together. How has that cycling event evolved through the years for TT1, and does that serve as a reminder of how you started and help to keep the focus on Team Type 1 as the organization grows?
Southerland: It was a core of type 1 riders, and it was up to diabetics to win or lose. It was a chance for us to prove this disease was not a limiting factor in any way.
We did it for five years, and we won it three years. This is the second year in a row we haven’t done the bike race. It became somewhat mechanical mainly from a crew perspective. To get people to take 12 days off, year after year was challenging. Still, in that race you get the highest of highs. It is a phenomenal experience everyone should go through.
We did do something different last year. We have 10 type 1s running across the country in 15 days. To our knowledge that has never been done before. It was amazing.
If someone breaks our Race Across America record, we’ll go back. We want the race record to stand forever. We were recently honored to be the first team entered into the Race Across America hall of fame.
Southerland being lifted after a big win in Philadelphia. TT1`s professional men’s team finished 1st, 2nd, 4th and won the King of the Mountains jersey at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship in June.
DiabetesCare.net: Your professional men’s cycling team is working towards earning a position at the Tour De France. When do you hope to compete there?
Southerland: It depends on a few things. It is a combination of budgetary needs and finding the right riders. It would be great to have an all finishing Team Type 1 in the Tour De France. The message of empowerment in spite of diabetes would go around the world.
I’m also looking at milestones as meaningful ways to time events. For example, insulin was invented in 1921, so it is an internal goal of our organization that on the 100 anniversary celebrating the advent of insulin by having an all Team Type 1 at the Tour De France.
DiabetesCare.net: Your organization has grown from type 1 cyclists to now include a marathon group, triathalon group, and type 2 athletes. Any other specific athletic goals for Team Type 1 for 2012?
Southerland: We are aiming to recruit the best athletes with diabetes in the world. Within our women’s program, we are looking to develop new leaders. We have a triathlete race at the end of this year.
Every race we do, we try to win and spread the message. We have over 100 races on our list this year. We are doing a race in China called the Tour of Qinghai Lake. If we win that race, we can try to help abolish discrimination against people with diabetes in China. That is a major goal for our organization.
[Editor’s note: A Team Type 1 rider won the seventh stage of this event in early July, and TT1 had a rider finish 14th in the overall race. Readers can go here to find out more about the race.]
DiabetesCare.net: Your organization formed the TT1 Diabetes Sports Research Institute. Can you provide an overview of what this is?
Southerland: We aim to work with the top diabetes researchers, sports physiologists, nutritionists, and other medical professionals to find out what athletes with diabetes should be targeting for blood sugar numbers to enhance their performance and what do we need from a nutrition/ insulin management standpoint to keep it there.
We recently published our first study, which was a big moment for Team Type 1. As this was the first study, we still need to do more research, and we are in talks with various partners and looking to move the institute and doing studies further along.
DiabetesCare.net: What do you hope to achieve as your long term goals with the institute?
Southerland: We want to provide some predictability to the most unpredictable disease while in the middle of participating in sports. And we want to leverage what we learn and give that to the general public.
We want to make sure that as our athletes are competing and inspiring others that it is never diabetes that stops them from success.
DiabetesCare.net: You wrote a memoir, titled Not Dead Yet. Why the decision to write this book and what is the message you want to impart to readers?
Southerland: The decision to write the book came at the suggestion of some people that I respect. The broad message within—but it is something that parents could take away—is if you have a child with diabetes, or if you don’t, you have to be a good parent and take responsibility. My mom was given a death sentence for her child 30 years ago, and she went about learning everything there was to know about diabetes and taking charge. She made sure I was healthy, active, and fit. In turn, that was the only way of life I ever knew.
It was also my mom’s willingness to let me take over my daily diabetes management at six years old that was instrumental. I had to fall down a few times by myself, but with my mom’s arms there to catch me if I needed her. This was invaluable, and so when I was ready to go away to college, I was ready to take it on by myself because I had already been doing it for many years.
I also hope the book shows that we are all dealt a deck of cards with some good and bad elements. And everyone has something that they have to overcome. Mine was diabetes, and I overcame it. You can complain about being dealt diabetes, but that was not how I was raised—I thank my mom for that as well.
I have been able to take a bad hand of cards, and turn it into personal achievements that I can now share with the world. I hope people can learn some diabetes lessons and take some inspiration to do whatever they want to do.
DiabetesCare.net: Any other lessons from your mom that stand out?
Southerland: Exercise. It was never an option to not exercise. It benefited me tremendously. For anybody who has diabetes, and has gone from a life of not exercising to one of exercising, their control gets better. If you exercise, it is going to help you prevent complications.
This is something I hope people take away from Team Type 1; if all of these athletes are out there competing in some of the most difficult sports in the world, while managing one of the most difficult diseases to manage, then everyone can exercise.
DiabetesCare.net: Exercise has been such a huge component to your diabetes management and your life overall. However, this important element to good disease management still seems like a missing component to many people with diabetes themselves, and also to the medical community in terms of providing advice to patients and encouraging them to do so. Why do you think that is?
Southerland: From a patient standpoint, it is difficult. There is no book on how to go out and exercise. If you go out and exercise, sometimes you get a good blood sugar reaction, sometimes it’s a bad reaction.
Being able to learn from that and do it again is not always easy.
From the medical perspective, some providers have gotten into a habit of just prescribing medicines, and that drugs alone will fix the problem. They have gotten out of the habit of lifestyle adjustments.
We have to stop prescribing medicine first and start recommending lifestyle changes, when applicable. When one of my doctors saw I had developed high blood pressure, he recommended I take an ACE inhibitor. I know that once you take these inhibitors, it usually becomes a lifetime regimen. So, I took the prescription and put it in a drawer at home. I then cut out the salt in my diet, I started drinking more water, cut back on coffee, and started exercising more. I went back to my doctor three months later and my blood pressure was perfect. He said to me, ‘I told you the pills would work.’ And I said no, `my lifestyle change worked.` That was seven years ago, and my blood pressure has been perfect ever since.
Of course, I know the importance of medicine; I have been on drugs every single day since I was diagnosed. However, drugs are much more effective when used with lifestyle modifications.
We have to take some responsibility and change. Parents have got to get their kids away from the TV screen and get them outside. Let kids be kids again.
Southerland during his Rwanda trip.
Southerland: When we went there, over 400 kids had type 1 and they had an average A1c of 10.9. With the test strips and more awareness of the disease, the average A1c is down to 8.9 there.
This shows what monitoring and knowledge can do. With Rwanda, we had great success. We were fortunate to combine our two specialties—cycling and advocacy. We want to go where there are bike races; it is a good way to combine races and show that diabetes can be cool if you take control. We want to help raise the voice of those who don’t have voices in the world of diabetes.
I met a young man from Rwanda at a diabetes congress last year, and he thanked me. He told me, ‘before our team came, everybody I know was aware that I would die very young and a very painful death because of diabetes. After Team Type 1 came, my friends and family know I will be able to overcome diabetes. Your team changed how my country looks at diabetes.’
That is one example, and we aim to do that with all the developing countries.
We are looking at the African and South America race sporting event calendars to see where we can combine this type of advocacy with racing. We are hoping to building models for Africa, South America, and Asia to ensure that there is a good model for every person who has diabetes in the world.
DiabetesCare.net: What are your big areas of focus and goals for Team Type 1 with regards to global advocacy for the coming years?
Southerland: China is a big place we want to focus on. Right now in China, if you have diabetes, you cannot go to school or get a job. We want to abolish discrimination and set up educational systems, advocacy and awareness. We want to set it up so that once people are diagnosed, they will have access to the tools, get the necessary education, and the medical support needed.
Advocacy is what we do whether it be at diabetes camps or local communities or on a grand stage like in China, we aim to continue to use sports as our platform for the message we have which is equality and empowering that if they take control they can do anything.
DiabetesCare.net: Are you planning to take any diabetes supplies or do you have an events planned in China?
Southerland: No, but Sanofi has hired a documentary crew to film some open displays of people checking their blood sugar and taking insulin in public with no shame.
We are working with various medical places around China and doing press conferences here and there to make sure the whole Chinese community knows what is being done with diabetes.
Readers who are interested in purchasing Southerland’s book, Not Dead Yet, can do so here.