Long before he was able to compete himself, Gary Hall Jr., made his Olympic debut at age 21 months on the shoulders of his father. After qualifying for his third Olympic team in 1976, Gary Hall Sr. triumphantly hoisted the toddler high above his head. The senior Hall, now a Phoenix, Arizona-based eye surgeon, wrapped up his Olympic swim career that year with two silvers and a bronze medal.
Twenty years later, during the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the baby who was held aloft earned his own medals: He won two silvers in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, while his archrival, Russian Alexander Popov, won the golds. But Hall won two gold medals in the 4 x 100-meter medley and 4 x 100-meter freestyle relays, swimming at a world record pace and beating the Russians.
A worrying diagnosis
That March, however, America’s top sprint free-styler received devastating news: The 24-year-old was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a condition in which your body produces little or no insulin, the hormone that fuels the breakdown of food into energy.
Without monitoring and treatment, diabetes can cause serious complications. Diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults, according to the association, and the leading cause of kidney failure. Many diabetics also suffer from nerve damage, circulation problems, and occasional insulin shock; in some advanced cases, the disease can result in amputation or even death. Most people, however, continue to live productive lives by getting regular doses of insulin.
Immediately after his diagnosis, Hall believed his career was over. Although he was in good shape, he knew that the physical and emotional stress brought on by competition can cause insulin to rise to dangerous levels. For this reason, one of his doctors told him that he would no longer be able to compete at the same level, dashing Hall’s dreams for another Olympics competition.
But not for long. By monitoring his exercise and blood sugar, Hall has maintained a grueling training schedule at an Olympic compound in Phoenix, Arizona, where a typical training day involves four hours of swimming, two hours of weightlifting and two hours of calisthenics and plyometrics (exercises that develop explosive power, usually involving jumping and throwing medicine balls). Despite all this, he managed to swim at the highest level, setting a new American record at the 2000 Olympic trials and qualifying for four events.
Five months after his diagnosis, Hall triumphed in the U.S. national championships with a personal best time in the 50-meter freestyle. He competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia and shared in a gold medal.
Since that time, Hall went on to win a second gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle race at the 2004 Athens Games for the U.S. team, making him a 10-time Olympic medalist. In 2008 he was ranked fourth in the United States and 16th in the world in swimming’s “splash and dash.” In 2013 he was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, having won 10 Olympic medals — five gold, two silver, three bronze — from 1996 to 2004. In this interview, he talks about his diagnosis and the physicians who helped him resume his swimming career, and the advocacy work he does on behalf of other people with diabetes.
‘Everything went red’
What were the circumstances leading up to your diagnosis of diabetes?
I felt like I had the flu in the weeks leading up to it, and my vision had deteriorated. I thought maybe I needed new glasses. I assumed there was something wrong, but I hoped it was something that would eventually go away. I took antibiotics, which of course doesn’t help diabetes at all.
One night, my fiancee got me to go to her best friend’s engagement party — I’d been in bed and really didn’t want to go. I got there and was trying to carry on a conversation when everything went red. I stumbled out to the car and lay down. The next morning I went to see the doctor and my blood sugar was up at 300-plus. They diagnosed me immediately. I now take up to eight shots [of insulin] a day.
I have no family history, and I’ve exercised every day of my life. It’s just proof to myself and everyone else that it’s a disease that can strike anywhere and any time. It can affect young or old, any race, any age, any gender.
Were you aware of any symptoms before your diagnosis?
I’m 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. Before the diagnosis, I weighed 180. I’d been trying for years to put on weight and I wasn’t able to. Even as far back as high school, my coach insisted I have 10 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day. In college my coach said I’d break the world record when I weighed 210 pounds. I was never able to get there. It’s possible I was sick then. It feels great having that weight now. I feel a lot better now that I’m treating the disease.
What did your doctor say about continuing your swimming career?
The first endocrinologist I saw informed me that it was highly unlikely I could continue at the level of competition I was accustomed to.
Were you devastated?
Devastated doesn’t even come close to describing it. I just wanted to lie on the floor and disappear. I took time off and went to Costa Rica for six weeks. When I returned, I located another physician, Dr. Anne Peters, then at UCLA. She sat down and we discussed my schedule and we came up with a game plan. She’s been so instrumental in my ability to overcome this disease to the extent I have.
A game plan for training
How has diabetes affected your training?
I have to have the freedom to get out in the middle of practice, dry off and get something to eat. My coach, Mike Bottom, has learned a lot about the disease. It’s cut down on the long, continuous swims, the aerobic work. But that’s fine with me; that’s why I’m a sprinter!
I’ve also tried to cut out as many carbohydrates as possible, which is difficult while I’m training at this intensity. It’s a juggling act; any time you put something in your mouth, you have to think, ‘Okay, how will this affect my blood sugar?’ Same with exercise. So it’s balancing nutrition and exercise.
Since your diagnosis, you’ve become something of a diabetes activist, haven’t you?
I’ve gotten thousands of letters from people with diabetes, or who have family members with diabetes, and I write back. I’ve been going to hospitals and visiting people and speaking at universities. I’ve done some public service announcements and appeared before the U.S. Senate asking for more funding. We’re so close to a cure — so close. I feel there’s a need to create awareness of what the disease is. I thought it only affected older people who’d neglected their health. By creating awareness, people will know if they’re at risk.”
The American Diabetes Association http://www.diabetes.org
Interview with Gary Hall
Centers for Disease Control. National Diabetes Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/factsheet.htm
American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Statistics. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-statistics.jsp
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. National Diabetes Statistics. http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/statistics/