More than 18 million Americans, including 215,000 children, have heard the heartbreaking news that they have diabetes. Diabetes is a lifelong disease that causes high levels of blood sugar in the body and affects everything you do -- from the sports you play, the activities you participate in, even the food you eat.
NASCAR driver Ryan Reed grew up on a racetrack. His dad, Mark, was also a driver and Ryan couldn’t wait to follow in his father’s footsteps. So when he found out he had type 1 diabetes in February 2011, he thought his dream had disappeared. But Ryan was 17 years old and it would take more than diabetes to stop him from getting behind the wheel. He fought back, and now he's a rookie NASCAR driver and showing everyone that nothing can stop hard work and dedication.
SI Kids recently interviewed Ryan about racing, life with diabetes, and how he fought back from diabetes to follow his dream.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a NASCAR driver?
I grew up around a racetrack. My dad raced, so for as long as I can remember I wanted to race, as well. I got a go-kart when I was four to start racing. I played every sport I could think of growing up, but the only one I really cared about was racing.
What did your family think when you told them that you wanted to be a driver? I imagine your dad was probably pretty excited.
Yeah. My mom was not, but my dad was all for it. My mom had been with my dad for obviously a number of years and she had been used to racing, but she wasn’t too pumped about her kid racing. My dad convinced her, obviously.
What did you do to make your dream become a reality?
Since the time I was four until I was 19 or 20, it’s just been a lot of hard work and a lot of climbing the ladder. Whether you play baseball or football, you play college ball and all that just to try to get noticed. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of hours working on racecars when I was younger. When I was in high school, I would go to school and then work until 10 or 11 o’clock at night on my racecar. It was a lot of hard work and dedication and a lot of fun in the process.
How has your life changed since being diagnosed with type-1 diabetes?
I really don’t know if it has changed, but it’s made me grow up a lot. Before I was diagnosed, I was 17, very sure of myself, driving racecars and ready to move across the country. I thought nothing could hold me back. Being diagnosed was a huge reality check of how vulnerable I really was and how quickly my dreams could be taken away. But really it was a good reality check. Obviously being told that I wasn’t going to be able to race again was devastating to my family and me. But being able to overcome it and continue racing has made me a better person.
Is there any way for you to manage your diabetes and blood sugar while you’re racing?
I use a continuous glucose monitor and I mount it on the dashboard of the car so it wirelessly monitors my blood sugar. I can watch it just like I monitor my RPMs, my water temperature, or my oil pressure. It was definitely something to get used to, but it works really well.
How does having diabetes change the way you prepare for a NASCAR race?
I definitely take the fitness side of it more seriously and train like an athlete. My diet is extremely important, especially a few days before the race. There’s a lot of talking with my doctors back and forth and working with a nutritionist and a personal trainer. It’s just having that communication with a team of people I have around me and staying really plugged with them is really important.
What has been your most memorable race so far?
Probably Richmond last year, where I got my first NASCAR Nationwide top 10. That was huge for me. Probably the second most is when we had the Lilly Diabetes car in Charlotte for the first time.
What are your goals for this year’s NASCAR season?
Just to continue to learn. It’s my rookie year, so there’s a lot to learn, a lot of mistakes to be made and a lot of things to overcome. It’s important that I don’t get discouraged, but also appreciate the good days. When there are bad days, I need to make sure I move on and learn from it.
Tell me about the “Drive to Stop Diabetes” campaign.
To be able to tie the racing back to diabetes has been really cool. There are a lot of NASCAR fans who are either living with diabetes or have been affected by diabetes in some way, so to see everyone in the NASCAR world be so accepting of it has been great. Maybe some who have been affected by diabetes but weren’t NASCAR fans might now become part of the sport. It’s been really cool to tie everything together. To have Lilly Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association support the program has just been awesome. It’s just been a surreal deal over the past couple of months and I’m stoked to be a part of it.
What message can you give to other kids that have diabetes?
Just don’t give up on your dreams. When I was diagnosed, I was so discouraged because I didn’t know anything about the disease. It was really easy for me to feel defeated by diabetes and feel like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I would just tell kids not to give up and keep pursuing their dreams. Go work on understanding diabetes a little more and work with your doctor to see if there’s a way to continuing doing whatever you want to do.
Photos: Lilly Diabetes, CSM /Landov