Type 1 Diabetes Is The Latest Obstacle Kate Brim Is Taking Head On
by Joanne C. Gerstner
Kate Brim competes at the 2022 UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup in Quebec, Canada. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Two-time world champion Para-cyclist Kate Brim jokes that she somehow ends up doing things the hard way. It’s not on purpose, but still true, as life has thrown a lot at the U.S. handcyclist.
It started with becoming paralyzed in her teens due to the aftermath of two surgeries to fix a herniated disc. She’s adapted to life as a quadriplegic, turning to cycling and other adaptive sports to fuel her competitive spirit.
About 16 months ago, life threw another serious complication when Brim discovered she was now a Type 1 diabetic. The chronic disease presents unique challenges for her body, as she already has nerve damage. But in classic Brim form, doing things the hard way comes with determination and a healthy sense of humor.
“It’s part of the deal now, so I am going to have to handle it,” Brim, 24, said. “It’s just like when I got the SCI (spinal cord injury). I was scared. And then I got to work, educating myself to figure it all out. It’s about cluing into the ways to help my body be at its best and understand that there are going to be good and bad days.”
Brim, a native of Lowell, Michigan, said a big help in her process has been recently becoming part of Team Novo Nordisk, which bills itself as “the world’s first all diabetes professional cycling team.” All of its members have Type 1 diabetes, and they come from around the world, giving Brim a sense of community. The team learned about Brim’s status through a podcast appearance she did in January, where she discussed her life as an elite Para athlete dealing with T1. Team officials reached out and asked her to join, and she quickly said yes.
“I am so fortunate to have them, because I can talk to others who are just like me in terms of training and trying to keep everything regulated,” Brim said. “It’s like you don’t need to explain a lot, they already know, because they are there too. There aren’t many Para-cyclists there yet, so I am representing a unique space.”
Brim is focused on the 2023 Para-cycling season, and the bigger picture run-ups to the combined UCI Cycling World Championships in Scotland, the Parapan American Games in Chile and then the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. She is one of the best H2 cyclists in the world, and reaching her first Paralympic Games is the goal.
Her two world titles — in the road race and toad time trial — came this past year. The accomplishments were even more impressive considering she was in her first year on the national team — and struggling with managing her insulin levels while competing on the hilly courses in Quebec.
“We were only six months out from me learning my diagnosis, so it was a lot of, ‘Holy crap, what do we need to do now?’ when we were seeing my body reacting out there,” she said. “It’s been a constant reminder that there are going to be road bumps as I chase my dreams. I am super fortunate to be riding a bike, and I want to keep seeing where I can take this. I love being on the bike. Period.”
Brim’s positive perspective on her health challenges is mixed with acknowledging realities. She had been working hard — too much of a schedule by her admission — during the pandemic, logging 70 hours a week at Amazon while also doing online college. Burned out and needing a break, Brim decided to attend an adaptive sports camp in Indiana.
She felt tired, chalking it up her crazy life. However, things turned more serious when she collapsed after reaching the top of a climbing course. A trip to the local emergency room brought a diagnosis of exhaustion.
But she had a feeling something else was wrong. On the drive home from Indiana, she admitted she was in serious trouble. She checked in with her primary care physician, rattling off symptoms, and was told to immediately get help.
She went to another hospital, and this time doctors found her blood sugar level to be 900 — a number that likely produces a diabetic coma. Brim was stabilized, told that she was now a Type 1 diabetic and soon, in her words, “handed a pamphlet, wished good luck, and sent on my way.”
Brim didn’t know anything about being a diabetic, much less an elite cyclist in training with the disease. She threw herself into a wormhole of research. She made some big decisions, such as moving from Michigan to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train out of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. Working closely with the national team dietician, training and coaching staffs has helped a lot, especially to sort through all the unknowns in real-time.
Such as the day when her insulin pump wasn’t working correctly — during a training ride.
“I’ve had some pretty scary lows on this learning curve,” she said. “Like that one time in when my pump was giving me more insulin than I needed during a ride. I was in the super low teens, felt weird and called for help. The fire department came! They were amazing with me the whole time, telling me I was going to be OK even though I wasn’t feeling great.
“I’m learning how to deal with all of the factors, when I am stressed, or sick, or training really hard, or not training. How do I get to the best fueling practices for my body? It’s all by living through these moments and figuring them out with the team. I really want to show people what is possible, even when serious or scary things happen to you. You still can dream really big, and hopefully make them come true.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.