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Chris's story: Living with type 1 diabetes as a professional athlete

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Chris Pennell

Diagnosed age 19.

There were no doubts for me that I wanted to play sport at the highest level.

Chris Pennell, 31, is currently in his 11th season at Worcester Warriors and was capped for England against the All Blacks. He was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 19.

Diagnosis

My journey with diabetes

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in my second year at Worcester Warriors, and pre-season, every player has a routine blood test. Abnormally high blood glucose levels were found in mine. The symptoms which would normally be easy to spot, being tired or being hungry, were being masked by high-intensity training. The diagnosis was confirmed the next morning with a finger prick test.

 

 

When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea what impact it would have on rugby. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to play. So I asked the club doctor ‘what does this mean?’ And he said ‘Chris, we’ll get the best advice, but this isn’t going to stop you doing what you want to do.’ So from that moment on, because of his confidence, I was sure then that I was going to do everything I wanted to do.

Currently, I inject my background insulin once a day, and with the diet I’m on I don’t use any fast acting insulin apart from on game days. If I didn’t have these food choices, if I didn’t have diabetes, these choices may not come so easily to me. I use both CGM and finger prick tests to track my blood glucose levels.

Food and healthy eating

Diet, nutrition and exercise

Taking advice from full-time nutritionists has given me great freedom to live with my diabetes. But I have to be careful when talking about diets to people with diabetes because what works for one person may not work for another.

The benefit of exercise on your diabetes is well-proven – not just for a rugby player but for everyone. And of course, keeping fit is also without a doubt helpful to your mental health.

I’m aware that I’m in a real bubble in the world of diabetes, being a professional rugby player means eating well, looking after my body and keeping fit. 

A large part of having diabetes has been very good for my rugby. It has taught me a lot about understanding my body and how it works which is very useful for a professional sports person.

Life with diabetes

Support from friends and family

Without a doubt diabetes is tough, and it is a strain. There are people that really struggle and I have days when I have enough. I’ve said to my wife (Jo) a few times ‘I wish I didn’t have diabetes’ but those days are few and far between.

I’m lucky with my family and how supportive Jo, my wife, is with me - where she gives me a kick up the backside and says, ‘c’mon, you’ve got kids to look after’, and that works for me. For other people, they might need a parent or best friend to put their arm around them at a key moment. It’s whatever works for the person.

Diabetes UK and me

My experience with Diabetes UK

Don’t bottle it up if you're struggling with anything, it’s so important to share issues – you just can’t solve everything yourself, you do need help sometimes.

Rely on your family and your friends, and the support Diabetes UK can offer.

It’s been great to invite Diabetes UK to film my academy for young children with type 1 diabetes who just play sport.

It's amazing to have Diabetes UK ambassadors like Gary Mabbutt MBE, who have served as proof that you can be type 1 and play sport at the highest level.

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