Type 2 diabetes - Steve's story 

'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


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

tosca21 said on 05 September 2014

I was diagnosed with type 2 on valentines day 2012
My sugar level at this time was 18
I was imeadiatley put on Metformin which I continue to take
Like many others I found it hard food shopping and was very particular about what I ate.
However after a while I slipped back into old eating habits.
One area that I do avoid is fizzy drinks as I feel that this had a large bearing on my condition
Low calorie drinks and Canderel in tea or coffee are my main change.
I have just reduced my Metformin as
I thought that not enough sugar was getting into my body
I feel a lot better for it.
I have now had the results after 3 months of this reduction and my sugar level was 6.7 no action required (had a donut to celebrate)
I find this amazing as I still eat chocolate most days,biscuits cakes a few sweets when driving
MC Donalds occassionally or KFC
I do feel that the NHS put the fear of god into you.
All people are different and my condition may deteriorate in the future but at least if my sugar count starts to rise then I can review the situation

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Michael Trivett said on 13 October 2013

My mother in law had diabetes, my Daughter and cousin and sisterly law has it. My wife has just been diagnosed as well. I thought I new something about it but have now found what I did know was not what I thought it was. So reading this has made me stop thinking I know most to realise I do not know anything about it.

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Eltharia said on 10 September 2012

Steve was lucky to have doctors that gave a toss. My GP knows nothing about diabetes and admits it quite freely. My "consultant" ( you know that person at the hospital who is supposed to help us manage our diabetes) will not give me a appointment. I have been trying to do it all myself for 6 years now. I have chronic depression because no one will employ me. I cant afford to eat regularly because my benefits don't cover bills and food, so I stopped eating two days ago. Things came to a head when my partner said to me that I eat too much. He then compared me to Sir Steve " If he can get up and win the olympics then so can you!" I'm not too sure what he is expecting when he said that but I do hope he enjoys the results.
I do hate being compared to Steve, he wasn't diagnosed as a child and left to fester alone in the misery of it.

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MikeWeatherley said on 23 August 2011

I was recently diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, but
according to my annual HBA1C test, it was assumed
by my medical practise that it could be controlled by diet alone. However, my actual fasting blood glucose results (from both the local hospital laboratory tests
and my own blood glucose meter results) were consistently high. My GP already had my complete medical history, including that I have been a sufferer of Hereditory Spherocytosis (a form of heamolytic anaemia) all my life. I was bemused as to why my fasting blood glucose results of 9-10 were consistently
not thought by my GP or practise nurses to be a worry.
They were arguing with me that so long as the HBA1C
result was 6 or less, then I was okay. However, I didn't
believe them, and eventually made the point that as I
have a form of anaemia, my blood cells don't last for
100 days, and so the HBA1C result is misleadingly low
in my case. They were eventually persuaded by me that my blood glucose was in fact NOT under control with diet, and reluctantly agreed to allow me to go onto Metformin, to get my glucose down to a safe level. They
organised a supplementary blood test with the local hospital for Fructosamine, which confirmed that my
long-term blood glucose was indeed 50% higher than
normal (9-10, rather than a maximum of 6). I would like
to urge anyone with diabetes who is also anaemic to
ask their GP for this Frucosamine test, otherwise their
Diabetes is NOT being controlled without drugs.

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