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A diagnosis of diabetes can be devastating. Managing the disease often requires blood-sugar checks, insulin injections, dietary restrictions and activity limitations, making it especially tough for a kid to be a kid. But it doesn’t have to. Just ask Sean Busby.
The pro snowboarder turned backcountry guide was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 19. Discouraged, he nearly quit snowboarding altogether, but while researching the disease, came across testimonials from other young diabetics. Many had never experienced sports like normal kids.
“I realized how fortunate I was to get diagnosed later in life,” says Busby. Burnt out from a hectic competition schedule, “I allowed myself to fall in love with the sport again by heading to the backcountry,” he says.
Snowboarding following his diagnosis was difficult, but Busby persevered.
“Diabetics are more prone both to dehydration and quicker-onset sickness, especially at altitude,” says Daniel Ruck, a registered nurse at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colo. and the type-1 endocrine chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Rocky Mountain chapter. “It’s important to carry the right supplies—a blood sugar meter, a phone, a snack, water, a replacement pump set if you use an insulin pump, a backup insulin pen.”
That’s a lot for a professional athlete to take on, let alone a kid or parents, making the prospect of a ski vacation daunting.
“It’s challenging,” says Merilee Verdun, the JDRF Rocky Mountain outreach manager, whose daughter is diabetic. “We don’t know if the insulin in her pump will freeze, if her blood sugar will lower too much from the activity, if someone will be with her if or when that happens.”
Busby thinks insulin dependence shouldn’t sideline anyone from being active. When he’s not teaching kids, his expedition company Powder Lines hits the backcountry from Antarctica to Iceland, broadcasting footage and educational content across the globe. In 2004, he started Riding on Insulin, a nonprofit organization that teaches young skiers and snowboarders and their parents how to cope with diabetes on the slopes.
“My premise was to teach what I have learned about this disease as a professional winter sports athlete and how I manage my insulin and glucose levels in a winter environment in addition to protecting my medical devices from the elements,” says Busby.
Each year, he and his wife Mollie take their camps on the road to places like Australia, Oregon, California and Colorado. This weekend, April 13–14, they’ll be in Breckenridge, Colo. The clinics offer a full day of skiing or riding for kids from 7 to 17 plus a parents’ networking session in the base lodge. Surrounded by their peers and supported by ski school instructors and local volunteers, campers learn how to keep control of their boards and their blood-sugar while on the slopes.
The clinics are open to beginner to advanced skiers and snowboarders, and each child can bring one non-diabetic sibling or friend. A few spots are still available for this weekend’s clinic. For more info or to sign up, visit ridingoninsulin.org.