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Diabetic U.S. athlete has a point to prove


The closet of Olympic cross-country skiing is littered with incriminating paraphernalia: vials, syringes and equipment used by cheats to gain a chemical edge.


But nobody in the sport of skinny skis is more open about the use of the needle than U.S. Olympian Kris Freeman, a New Hampshire native who requires them simply to survive.

Indeed, Freeman openly injected himself in plain view to prove two points: that an athlete with Type 1 diabetes can excel at the highest level of sport. Secondly, Freeman's very public injections were a repudiation of those athletes who shoot up illegally and clandestinely.


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"Up until two years ago, I was taking 12 shots a day -and I was doing it in the open," Freeman said Wednesday. "In the cafeteria, when all of the teams are sitting together, I'd take out my syringe with insulin and stick myself in the stomach with it. The guys who have cheated in the past did it behind closed doors. They were secretive about it. I'm in the open about it. The IOC knows I use insulin, WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] knows that I use insulin, FIS [the governing body for skiing] knows that I used insulin. Hopefully, I'll win a medal and everybody in the world will know I use insulin."

Diagnosed 10 years ago with Type 1 diabetes, a life-threatening condition that affects the breakdown of food into energy, Freeman was told to forget about an Olympic career. Yet here he is, a decade later -a 10-time U.S. champion and three-time Olympian talking openly about ending an American drought in cross-country skiing that spans 34 years.


Vermont's Bill Koch was the first and last American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country when he took a surprise silver in the men's 30 km at the 1976 Winter Games -a Halley's comet-like performance in a sport thoroughly dominated by Scandinavians and Russians. Since the Winter Games began in 1924, Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and Russians have won 189 of 216 total medals in cross-country skiing. Of those remaining 27 medals, three have been won by Canada, all since 2002.


"I've battled two stereotypes since I was a kid," says Freeman, 29. "The first was that Americans could never succeed in cross-country skiing. People would say, 'You may have won junior nationals, but you'll get your butt kicked in Norway.' Then I got diagnosed with diabetes, and I was told I'd never race again. I like to prove people wrong, and I like a challenge. This is the best team I've ever been a part of. "


Freeman points to Kikkan Randall, a 27-year-old Alaskan with a swath of magenta-tinted hair who is unique both in appearance and accomplishment. She is the first American woman to win a medal at the world championships.

Then there's Vermont's Andy Newell, one of the world's fastest sprinters, and Freeman himself, who has two fourth-place finishes at the worlds.


"It's not a guarantee that we're going to break through for a medal, but it's so possible," Freeman says. "It's not like we're going to need a freak day to do this. We can do it on a plain, even playing field. It just has to be on the right day."

To get his metabolism right, Freeman relies on the OmniPod, a disposable pump that regulates the flow of insulin to keep him from crippling episodes of unbalanced blood sugar.


"For a 15K, I need three times the insulin to go into my body that I do for a 30K," he says. "For a 15K, I'm almost anaerobic [using oxygen more quickly than the body can replenish working muscles] for the whole time. My blood sugar rises. When I'm aerobic [efficiently transporting oxygen], my blood sugar falls. It's a really delicate balance, depending on the exertion."


He must also be vigilant about getting too amped before a race. "My blood sugar can rise just by sitting there," he says. "So, certainly, the Olympics are going to affect me more. I try to listen to calming music. But it's hard to find calming music I like, because I'm very into heavy metal -Guns N' Roses." Of course, a band with an appetite for booze and hard drugs is in no way an extension of what Freeman represents -an indomitable Olympian breaking down barriers for diabetics. Because skiing truly is in his blood.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Photograph by: Richard Heathcote, Getty Images, Vancouver Sun

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