'There's no reason why you can’t achieve your dreams' 

After his victory in the rowing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Sir Steve Redgrave became the only British athlete to win five consecutive Olympic gold medals.

But what many people don’t realise is that Sir Steve achieved this final triumph against all the odds. Three years before the Sydney Olympics, he discovered he had diabetes.

“It was November 1997 and I had this tremendous thirst coming back from training one day,” he says. “After drinking three or four pints of fluids, I knew something wasn't quite right.”

Sir Steve’s grandfather was also diabetic, so the athlete wasn’t totally ignorant of the condition. While training abroad, he and his team mates were given dipsticks to test their dehydration levels, and Sir Steve could also test his urine for sugar levels.

“For some reason, I decided to do my own test and it came back positive,” he says. “I called my wife, who's a doctor, and she suggested going to see my GP. My blood sugar level was 32 (the norm is somewhere between 4 and 7), and I was sent to see a specialist. From that day on I’ve been taking insulin.”

The Olympic champion was 35 years old when he was diagnosed with type 2 or "adult-onset" diabetes, where the body doesn't make enough insulin or the cells in the body don't use insulin properly. He thought it was the end of his career.

“The little I knew about diabetes was that there were few sportspeople with the condition competing at the level I wanted to be at. I thought it was impossible to be diabetic and do what I did, so obviously I was a little depressed. I took it in my stride to some extent, because I’d already achieved four Olympic gold medals. But after a consultation, my specialist said he didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t achieve my dreams in Sydney. He said it wouldn’t be straightforward, and he was certainly right about that.”

Initially, Sir Steve was put on a low-sugar diet, but he soon found he didn’t have the energy to carry out the physically endurance training needed to compete at the highest level. His specialist decided that, as he'd performed well on his previous diet (of 6,000 calories a day and which included high-sugar content), he should go back on that diet and adjust his insulin dose accordingly.

“After I won in Sydney, my specialist and I did a press conference and another diabetes specialist stood up and said, ‘You’re a very lucky man,’” Sir Steve recalls. “He said if I’d come to the clinics of any of the specialists in that room, they'd have said I couldn’t do it. They were amazed.”

In theory, he could have been given tablets to control his blood sugar level, but Sir Steve says they wouldn’t have given him enough insulin in his system for the amount of training he was doing.

“I was testing my blood sugar levels, using a pin prick to draw a spot of blood 10 times a day. Normally, people with diabetes do it just once. If you’re not diabetic, your body naturally adjusts your insulin levels, so I was just trying to mimic as closely as possible what the body does naturally.”

Sir Steve now uses an insulin pump. Instead of injecting several times a day, the pump is attached all day, every day, feeding a small amount of the medication into the body all the time. The pump is about the size of a pack of playing cards and is attached to the side of the abdomen. The infusion unit only needs changing every three days.

“It’s a lot more convenient,” he says. “Particularly when you’re out and about. And you can take it off to shower or exercise. The down side is that I sometimes wake up during the night with it wrapped around me.

“There are fundamental changes you have to make when you discover you have diabetes, but there's no reason why you can’t achieve your dreams. I made the decision that diabetes was going to live with me; I wasn’t going to live with diabetes.”


Page last reviewed: 18/06/2014

Next review due: 18/06/2016