Sean Busby was nearly sidelined by diabetes. Today, he is still hitting the slopes—and helping others with diabetes do the same.
It was the summer of 2004, and then 19-year-old Sean Busby was at the height of his professional snowboarding career. And yet, instead of being out on the slopes cutting up trails on his board, he was lying on his parents’ sofa wasting away. “I wasn’t able to exercise. I was weak all the time, and I lost 30 pounds within two weeks,” explains the now 27-year-old champion snowboarder.
Sean eventually ended up in the hospital, incoherent. When doctors did a blood sugar test, it showed his glucose level was too high. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and put on oral meds. “I thought I had an answer, but I didn’t feel better. I was vomiting and thought I was dying.”
Unable to compete as he once had, Sean started getting dropped by his snowboarding sponsors.
Then, after nearly passing out at an airport in California, Sean was taken to the University of California’s Joslin Diabetes Center, where he was properly diagnosed—turned out he had type 1 diabetes.
“I received that first shot of insulin and it was the most amazing feeling I’d ever felt in my life,” Sean says. “I could instantly feel nutrition going into me. I had my energy back!”
Today, Sean is back on his board, traveling everywhere from Tasmania and Iceland to New Zealand and Antarctica to compete in snowboarding competitions.
But his main focus is inspiring kids with diabetes through his program “Riding on Insulin,” an international ski and snowboarding camp for kids with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, with an emphasis on managing blood sugar in various environments.
“I tell kids, diabetes has tried very hard to stop me from being an athlete, but I view it as my best friend,” Sean says. “Like any best friend, you can have the occasional argument—one day I can do everything right and my diabetes will say nope, not today and throw me every single curveball, but you work through it and get the friendship back on track. It’s just a matter of being patient and being prepared.”
If you’re planning on squeezing in some vigorous outdoor fun, here are Sean’s secrets for doing it safely:
Know your response to the environment.
“For example, the cold, altitude and humidity all put added stress on the body, and everyone has a different reaction. Some get a lot more high readings and some get a lot more lows, so you have to be extra vigilant,” says Sean. That’s why he checks his blood sugar levels as many as 12 times a day. The payoff is great: A recent study in the journal Diabetes Care shows that frequent blood sugar testing leads to better blood sugar control and fewer complications.
Do a 1:00 AM check.
Training and exercise can lead to low blood sugar episodes for 24 hours, so on any day you work out, it’s important to check frequently, including the wee hours. “I check my blood sugar in the middle of the night to make sure my body isn’t trying to recover any extra glucose that could cause me to have a really bad low.”
Count your steps.
While hiking, Sean counts every 50 steps—if he begins to lose count, or notices that it’s taking him much longer to get to 50, he knows he may be experiencing low blood sugar. “It’s important when you have diabetes to stay in tune with your body.”
“I always bring extra glucose—always—and some form of carbohydrates [for snacks],” says Sean. “Now that I use a tubeless insulin pump, I bring an extra one of those, too.” And because the cold weather drains batteries faster, Sean packs extras to make sure his testing meter stays functional.
Get others in the know.
“When I first came back into snowboarding after my proper diagnosis, I was still learning about managing my disease, so I would go to the ski patrol and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got type 1 diabetes,’ so they’d be aware of what might have gone wrong in case anything happened to me. Sometimes I’d wear a ribbon around my arm that told people I had diabetes.” Even if you’re not doing extreme sports, it can be a good idea to let others know about your condition so they can keep an eye on you.