Championing Diabetes – How Fiona Wylde Is Beating The Odds In SUP Competition and Disease
Just over three years ago professional standup paddler and Black Project athlete Fiona Wylde received some harrowing news about her health. She’d be diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, a disease many might expect to slow if not completely stall a young paddler’s profession. Since then the Hood River, Oregon native’s SUP career has only accelerated. Wylde went on to claim an overall APP World Champion title and back-to-back victories at the Columbia Paddle Challenge, among other accolades, expanding her reputation as one of the best female paddlers and all-round water-women on earth (Fiona is also a champion windsurfer and avid foiler). We caught up with Wylde (who immediately flew to Sumartra in search of waves after the Hood River race) to find out what it takes to beat the odds. –Mike Misselwitz
What exactly is Type 1 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to cease producing insulin. Insulin is the hormone that lets sugars, broken down from carbohydrates, exit your blood and enter your muscles to produce energy. A lack of insulin gives you high blood sugar, which has myriad negative effects. While plenty of research is being done, doctors still don’t know what exactly causes type 1 diabetes, nor do they have a cure.
In what ways has coping with the disease made you stronger in life and as a paddler?
There’s the saying, “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger” and I believe that. Having diabetes keeps me on my toes, keeps me in tune with my body and makes me appreciate the things I can do. It may take a few extra steps to get on the water compared to others, but that just makes me love my time out there more.
“Paddling has proven to me that if you have a dream, you should follow it. Type 1 diabetes has taught me to never give up on that dream.“
What motivates you to keep paddling on days when the disease is particularly challenging?
There are some days when I wake up with really high blood sugar and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. Those are the days when it’s most important to get up and do something active. Exercise always makes me feel better and when my blood sugar is roller coasting up and down being outside in the fresh air is the best thing possible.
As you displayed once again with your victory at the 2018 Columbia Paddle Challenge, clearly you’re beating the disease (and the competition). How does it feel to defy the odds and come out on top?
Winning the Paddle Challenge in my hometown was the most rewarding victory because it was such a communal effort. I felt like it was a victory for my parents, family, friends and coaches, too. I’m so thankful for all of the hard work they do to help keep me healthy while I pursue my dreams.
How does having diabetes affect your training and what’s your take on training smart versus training hard?
I have never consistently done crazy training like I imagine a professional athlete ought to do. Part of that comes from listening to my body. The rule of thumb goes that typically someone with type 1 diabetes needs about twice the recovery time that an athlete without diabetes needs. I notice when I put in shorter, more concentrated training sessions followed by fun sessions – either on the water or off the water with other sports – I feel the best both physically and mentally. For me it’s important to balance training with regular life, staying healthy and most importantly enjoying what I’m doing.
What equipment do you use to monitor your body during events and while training?
I wear a continuous glucose monitor called a Dexcom. It’s a small device that attaches to my abdomen and reads my blood sugar every five minutes, then tells me my status through an app on my phone. Maybe some people have seen me looking at my Apple Watch when I am paddling; sometimes it’s to check my time but typically it’s to check my blood sugar. Beyond that I always carry some Cliff Bar Shot Blocks (sugar) in the pocket of my hydration pack so if my blood sugar drops, I can raise it. I use insulin injections to lower my blood sugar, but exercise does that naturally so I don’t typically bring insulin with me on the water unless the race is long and I’m having a hard time steadying my blood sugar beforehand.
What equipment do you always carry when you travel to compete?
I take a few Starboard boards and paddles to every event, as well as a few Venture Swim bikinis, lots of sunscreen and of course, the best fins in the world thanks to Black Project! I carry the TIGER Fin everywhere. That’s my favorite fin. I also travel with a bunch of fast-acting sugar like GU chomps, Shot Blocks and juice in case my blood sugar drops, as well as energy bars, gluten free bread and snacks because I have Celiac Disease too, which means my body is intolerant to wheat, barely, oats and rye. This makes eating on the road a bit tricky but if I have enough snacks and emergency food, I can stay healthy. Last but not least I travel with enough insulin, test strips, needles and lancets to last two or three times the length of my trip. This doesn’t leave much room for clothes in my bag, but when I’m experiencing new places at far ends of the earth, that’s the least of my concerns.
In general, what does your diet consist of? How has it changed since being diagnosed with diabetes?
I’ve always tried to eat healthy and that hasn’t changed other than regulating my sugar intake. The biggest changes came when I was diagnosed with Celiac disease because now I need to stay away from wheat, barely, oats and rye like the plague. Luckily we live in a time where gluten-free products are readily available and I’ve found plenty of substitutes.
What advice do you have for others trying to achieve challenging goals through trials such as type 1 diabetes?
I would say the most important thing is to try to make the most of your situation and enjoy it. If we learn to appreciate the small things through the hard times, then life will be even richer when it gets good again. If there is a will, there is a way. You might have to figure out a different way to do something, but don’t give up on the things you love!
Learn more about Diabetes
JDRF International – Type 1 Diabetes Research Funding & Advocacy
More SUP Fin resources
The TIGER: Getting to Know Fiona Wylde’s Favorite SUP Fin
Choosing A SUP Race Fin: Advice from World Champion Standup Paddler Connor Baxter
Words: Fiona Wylde
Pics: Eric Duran
Follow Fiona Wylde on Instagram @fiona_wylde