My name is Luka Lee, I’m 20 years old and currently play for the Ryerson University Soccer team - oh, and I am a Type 1 diabetic. I have been involved in athletics all my life. From 8 years old to 20 years old. I have competed seriously in various sports such as hockey, tennis, boxing and of course, soccer.
Me, after the OUA championship game Versus York University
My story begins when I got diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 16 – at a time when I was trying to get back into soccer. I had quit soccer at the age of 13 to pursue Tennis and Boxing but 2 years later I realized that I had made a mistake quitting the only sport that I had truly loved. Here I was trying to restore and advance my soccer career, having missed 3 critical years of training and get into really competitive soccer teams hoping that I could later get into university soccer, all the while dealing with my radically new reality as an athlete with Type 1 diabetes.
Looking back, in the beginning of trying to play soccer at that level and manage my Type 1 diabetes, I realize that I really had no real deep idea what I was doing. I did not realize just how big a deal diabetes was and I sort of ignored it until I saw that it was affecting my performance.
I would typically play despite having high numbers before games, I wouldn’t test at half time, just assuming that they are going down. I read that exercise lowers blood sugar so I would just gulp down some Gatorade before practice or a game to keep safe, I did not re-test. After the game, I would cut back on my bolus insulin, again, just to keep safe. Numbers were all over the map but I was not into figuring them out and adding this huge new layer of involvement into my life!
All that I was doing was at a very crude level – not nearly at a finely-tuned program that I am trying to achieve now – 3 years later. I didn’t want to accept the fact that I really had to factor in and be disciplined with managing my sugar levels long before and after games. I continued to play without really taking proper care of my diabetes and unfortunately I got what I deserved.
I was a good player but for some reason I became just so inconsistent, some days I was great and other days the coach would pull me right back to the bench. I would often get tired and unfocused. I can reflect back and realize that the poor and inconsistent performance was linked to my inability to manage my sugar levels for the kind of competitive athletic performance that gets one into 'A teams'. I was safe but I was a long way off being the athlete that I wanted to be. I wanted my team mates and my coach to be able to count on me no matter what.
My routine during games for the first few months went like this - I’d eat food 2 hours before the game and cut back on insulin dosage (the conventional wisdom said that you need to cut back on insulin so your blood sugar is higher because running around during exercise will cause it to plummet), I would check before the game (never correct high number), play and after I would check and make sure I wasn’t low. As I said, this was a rather sloppy way to manage my diabetes. It was so very tough to have all the pressure of trying to get back into the sport and play for the best teams, and deal with this new confusing reality – one where I had to learn about through trial and error in order to not abandon my dreams.
It was a true test for me, but as time went on and I started learning more about what works best for me in terms of T1 management and athletics. I started playing better and actually joined a club team which competes in the United Soccer League in the US (outside of university) where I currently play. Toronto Lynx coaches and staff have been extremely supportive of my Diabetes, they know what to do in case I go low and make sure I am always good to play.
Toronto Lynx - I am number 21
Playing with Toronto Lynx at the age of 18, I knew that I had to start looking at Universities and their soccer programs. This meant one big thing for me if I was going to start trying out for university teams, I would have to have complete control of my diabetes so I could play well. I couldn’t let high blood sugar affect my play or low blood sugar keep me side lined. So while still playing for Toronto Lynx and just as I was starting to try out for University teams I started testing, learning, recording and generally fine-tuning a new routine that helped me manage my diabetes and get a better understanding of blood sugars in different situations.
Compared to my previous routine, when it comes to games, I now actually take more bolus insulin with my pre-game meals (I am not on a pump) which I have no later than 2 hours before the game – this gives me the cleanest picture. If I need to eat something closer to the game, I try to eat carb free food. I realized that my blood sugars always rise before games, quite dramatically. This was because nervousness, stress levels and anxiousness caused it to shoot up to 12,14 or even16 and I couldn’t play with numbers like that. So I began to take more insulin to try and keep my levels to a reasonable level aiming to get in the game at 7 or 8. On top of that, because of the position I play, it requires lots of sprinting (anaerobic exercise), my blood sugar will inevitably rise even more during the game, so unless I started out with the decent levels, I would finish at the 17 or 18 and would be extremely tired during the second half play, often just pushing myself through sheer willpower.
Now when I arrive at the field and begin to warm-up I check my blood sugar again and if I’m high I take half a unit in my leg muscle (acts the fastest for me). Previously, I would never correct high blood sugar before games because I was scared of what could happen if I exercised with insulin in my system, but slowly I realized that because of all the sprinting I was doing on the field it was okay to have a bit of insulin in my body to combat the sugars that were released during the short intense burst of energy I was doing.
At half time, when the coach was talking to us, I would check my blood sugar to see where my numbers were at to make sure that I wasn’t too low or too high. If I was getting low-ish because I was running more than sprinting then I would carry a high carbohydrate sport energy drink to take in some extra carbs – usually 20-30 before the second half.
At the end of the game I always make sure to eat a protein bar to replace the sugars that were lost during the game and the protein also helps with muscle recovery. I am careful with how much insulin I take with any meals after the game and I cut back my “normal” bolus dose by ⅓ to ½.
As you can see, I made a commitment to myself to properly manage my blood sugar before, during and after the game. Testing a lot and learning about my body and my particular situation, experimenting in a controlled and safe way was key. But before all that I needed to accept my diabetes as something that I need to get on top of completely in order to get to the next level. I understood that if I wanted to play University soccer for a good competitive team and make the cut, I would have to gain far better understanding of how to manage diabetes to stay safe but get optimal performance.
Fast forward to now, I currently play on the Ryerson university team, coming off a record breaking season. We went to our first national tournament and went 26 games unbeaten in the regular season. I am in my second year with the team and plan to play 3 more years. I am extremely glad to be a part of it.
I am still learning how to fine tune my management of diabetes and athletics. It is tough and challenging and not everything goes according to the plan all the time - sometimes your blood sugar can be high or low because of a number of other things, so you don’t always see the consistency or a pattern with your sugars. I am not claiming to be an expert either, I am simply happy to see that with a little bit of determination and lots of desire I am accomplishing what I wanted, and I hope to continue to do so.