SCOTT SIMON, host:
Cross country skiing is often an afterthought when talking about the U.S. ski team, but with the Winter Olympics just one week away, that may change. Kris Freeman has a good chance of winning an Olympic medal in cross country skiing. No American has done that in 30 years. Mr. Freeman is 25-years old and has become one of the best in the world in his grueling sport, which is remarkable when you consider what he has to do to just stay healthy. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
In the month before the Olympics, the media focus on athletes kicks into high gear, meaning another video shoot for Kris Freeman.
Mr. WALT WINTERS (Cameraman): Action.
(Soundbite of skiing)
Mr. WINTERS: Nice. Let's get the reverse, too.
GOLDMAN: It's a clear January day at Soldier Hollow in Utah, site of the Salt Lake City Olympic cross country events four years ago. As cameraman Walt Winters gives directions, Kris Freeman glides by the camera on his inch-and-a-half-wide, feather-light skis. Later Freeman steps in front of the camera for some Q&A, but it's not your run-of-the-mill pre-Olympic interview. The video is for one of Freeman's sponsors, the drug company Eli Lilly. The questions and answers are about dealing with disease.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Okay, tell me about, firsthand, having diabetes
Mr. KRIS FREEMAN (Olympic Cross Country Skier): I know first hand about -- I'll start over.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Okay.
Mr. FREEMAN: I know firsthand about diabetes and the consequences that you can face if you can't take care of them, which is a big reason why I take such good care of myself.
GOLDMAN: In September 2000, Kris Freeman took a routine blood test and found out he had Type 1 diabetes. His body wasn't making insulin, the hormone that helps turn sugar and other foods into energy. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form, often brought on by obesity and lack of exercise. Certainly those weren't problems for Kris Freeman at the time of his diagnosis. He was a superbly conditioned athlete in one of the most strenuous endurance sports. Tellingly, it was the athlete in Freeman that emerged in those first shocking moments after hearing he was diabetic.
Mr. FREEMAN: First thing wasn't, Oh my God, am I going to die? It wasn't, oh my God, am I going to go blind? It was, Oh my God, can I keep skiing?
GOLDMAN: The first three doctors he asked said no. Freeman, 19 at the time, would have none of that. But he realized if he were going to prove the doctors wrong, he'd have to approach his illness the way he'd done almost everything else in his life, with precision and focus.
Mr. FREEMAN: I have so much respect for my body that I immediately started treated myself as though I had diabetes and even took insulin the first night that I came home from the doctor.
GOLDMAN: Freeman went research crazy. He learned about the importance of keeping his blood sugar level not too high, not too low. He had to start keeping track of what he was eating and drinking, and Freeman became tethered to his little black bag, a wallet-size carrying case that contains injectable insulin and gadgets for measuring blood sugar.
During the video shoot, he demonstrated the process, first jabbing the tip of his finger with a device the size of a pen that has a needle on the tip.
Mr. FREEMAN: Stick. Drop of blood. Five seconds. Result, okay.
GOLDMAN: After dabbing the blood onto a blood sugar test strip, a monitor reads the strip and comes up with a blood sugar measurement. Before a race, he'll test his blood sugar up to ten times to make sure it's spot on when he starts. On race days it's all about preparation, which includes positioning coaches and team doctor Larry Gall(ph) along the race course. They carry sugar tablets, insulin and drinks called feeds that'll help Freeman if his blood sugar dips or rises.
Dr. LARRY GALL (Olympic Cross Country Team): One incident I spoke of in Sweden where I was not able to get to him with a feed. I just missed it.
GOLDMAN: Dr. Larry Gall…
Dr. GALL: His sugar got a little bit low, and he was a little bit goofy at the finish line, but we just poured some Gatorade type of solution down his throat and he drank it. Minutes later it was better
GOLDMAN: That's probably the closest call they have had, according to Dr. Gall. He's a cardiologist who says he sees lots of patients with diabetes. None like Kris Freeman, however.
Dr. GALL: I quite honestly have been stunned by his ability to stay on top of this and manage it. He's the best managed diabetic I personally take care of.
GOLDMAN: All the more stunning considering what Freeman does for a living. Cross country racing and traveling around the world is taxing enough on the body even without diabetes. The stress of it all can make the blood sugar swing high and low. But Freeman has kept it level, and the proof is in the race results. In 2003, he won the world championship for skiers under 23, America's first-ever world championship title. And now, for the first time since Bill Koch won a silver in 1976, the talk is about a U.S. Olympic medal in Turin.
Mr. FREEMAN: I mean a medal is a real possibility. If I walk away and don't have a medal, I'm in the top ten, I mean that was a goal. When I was, you know, 17 years old with my coaches it was top ten in 2006, medal in 2010. But I'm not going to complain a bit if I get a medal this year.
GOLDMAN: Nor will Dr. Larry Gall, who uses Kris Freeman as an example for his other diabetic patients. Know your disease and managed it like Freeman, Gaul tells them, and the payoffs can be huge. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
SIMON: Go, Kris.