CEDAR CITY — Ben Dilley’s childhood dream was to join the U.S. Air Force.
The Nebraska native even aspired to attend the prestigious Air Force Academy. But at just 14, he saw that dream end through no fault of his own.
“The diagnosis crushed that dream,” the 22-year-old said of being told he had Type 1 diabetes as a teen. “It was a tough time and a tough reality to come to grips with.”
A few months later, however, he saw a group of cyclists living with the same condition competing in the Race Across America, and a new dream was born.
“To see a team of athletes participating, and at that point winning, this cycling race, it really surprised me. It really inspired me,” said Dilley, who will compete in the Tour of Utah this week with Team Novo Nordisk, a team made up entirely of elite athletes living with Type 1 diabetes.
The Tour of Utah, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, welcomes 16 teams of world-class riders, who will start what’s been dubbed “America’s toughest stage race” in Cedar City Monday morning.
What Dilley’s learned since that initial diagnosis is that contrary to popular belief — and even what some medical professionals might advise — diabetes doesn’t sentence one to a life on the sidelines.
Phil Southerland, who founded and competed on the team that inspired Dilley to commit to cycling, said that even just a few years ago, the prevailing advice was that diabetics should be wary of athletics.
“The thinking was that you shouldn’t exercise because exercise presents risk,” said Southerland, who was diagnosed with diabetes as an infant.
Southerland understands firsthand how some see the condition as limiting. His mom was told that he likely wouldn’t live past age 25.
Diabetes is often seen as “a disease of what you can’t do,” Southerland said. “The public’s perception is that people with diabetes saw the disease as a limitation to them.”
In fact, those living with the condition like Southerland don’t see diabetes as a disease at all. Instead, they prefer to view it as a condition that requires diligence in managing.
He understands the anxiety associated with a diagnosis, as well as the fatigue that can set in over time.
“You have to get motivated to manage it,” he said. “Everything you do has an impact on your blood glucose. ... Most of the athletes on our team were told, ‘You won’t bike race again.’ That’s just a common thought out there.”
Which is why seeing professional athletes manage the condition while competing in one of the most grueling sports can be just the lifeline some families need.
Southerland started what used to be known as Team Type 1 to help a friend in 2005. When the team, made up of amateur riders, including Southerland, ended up winning Race Across America in 2007, he started to realize the power they could have to bring hope and awareness.
“So many kids were inspired, so many parents were moved, I thought, we need to globalize this,” said Southerland, who never dreamed he’d found and manage his own cycling team. In addition to the cycling team that will compete in Utah this week, more than 100 athletes around the world work with Southerland to educate and inspire those living with diabetes.
The athletes competing for Team Novo Nordisk are proud to provide information and inspiration, but they’re also elite competitors.
Joonas Henttala, who competes for Novo Nordisk, was diagnosed when he was 9 years old and said it may have helped him learn and pay attention to his body’s needs a little better as a young athlete.
“I’m totally fine with it,” said the 22-year-old from Finland. “Diabetes is part of me, not a separate thing.” The diagnosis came a bit easier for him as his father dealt with the same condition, and he taught him to manage his diabetes himself, even in elementary school.
“I wasn’t scared or mad,” he said. “This condition, right from the start, I thought was part of me, and now let’s deal with it. I learned everything about managing it right by myself. I listened, took advice, but took control into my own hands.”
Southerland said the team has been fortunate to find great athletes willing to be ambassadors as well as competitors. Their success gives them a platform from which they can share advice and offer hope. Maybe most importantly, however, simply by competing at this level they're proving limitations are too often self-imposed.
Their success in races and in the lives of those living with diabetes has exceeded Southerland's expectations.
“Did I think it was possible to have an all-diabetic professional cycling team? No,” Southerland said. “One of my early mentors in college said, 'It’s not possible.'”
Southerland thought they might be able to create a team entirely of professionals living with diabetes by 2020, but they were fortunate enough to find young talent much earlier than expected. Part of that is a shift in what the public sees as the possibilities for diabetics.
“It’s amazing now where we’re at,” he said. “There weren’t these athletes out there in 2005.”
For the young riders competing on Team Novo Nordisk, diabetes isn't really even an obstacle to be overcome.
“I’m totally fine with it,” said Henttala. “Diabetes is part of me, not a separate thing.”
Both Hentalla and Dilley are thrilled to be taking on the challenges presented by the 10th Tour of Utah. Organizers added mileage to the race this year, which ends on Aug. 10, making the tour a total of 753.8 miles with 57,863 feet of climbing.
“We have a lot of climbing waiting for us,” Henttala said. “It looks like a hard race, a fun race, and we’ll just take every day as one race and do the best we can.”
Dilley said diabetes may add an extra element to his preparation, but it certainly doesn’t deter him.
And while he was once shy about admitting he lived with diabetes, now he doesn’t hesitate to share his experiences.
“I was really embarrassed about it,” Dilley said. “I didn’t want anyone to know. It doesn’t have to be something that slows you down or stops you from doing something. It can be some thing that empowers you.”
Both men said that when they’re racing this week, they’ll be thinking only about doing what they can to help their team have success.
“On the start line, it’s all about the race,” Henttala said. “No one cares about that stuff. It is just bike racing; it’s what we love to do. It’s all about the legs at the start line.”
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