GLENDALE -- Coyotes forward Max Domi is raising awareness around Arizona and the NHL for diabetic athletes, who compete alongside friends and opponents every day while dealing with a lifelong condition that can be life threatening if not monitored with complete precision.
For some skaters, though, the issue is already something they’re familiar with – because they, like Domi, play hockey with diabetes every day.
That includes Arizona Lady Coyotes skater Riley Benson, who has been living with Type One Diabetes since she was eight.
“When I first found out I had diabetes,” explained Riley, “I was a gymnast and I didn’t really understand what it was.”
|Riley Benson |
Type one diabetes is a form of diabetes usually found in children and young adults, and only affects about 5% of individuals with diabetes.
Type two diabetes, the much more common form of the condition, is caused by high blood sugar levels than normal putting a strain on the affected patient’s pancreas (which tries to produce more insulin to keep up with the increased sugar levels). Type two diabetes can be regulated with a lower-sugar diet, and can potentially be prevented with weight management.
Type one diabetes, though, is different. Type one diabetics can’t produce insulin on their own, a condition caused by an individual’s immune system destroying the cells in their body that normally produce the glucose regulator.
This prevents their bodies from being able to regulate blood sugar levels on its own – something that can cause a variety of symptoms, from extreme fatigue to blurred vision. For an athlete like Riley, that’s an added concern when playing a sport as physical as hockey.
Although Riley was too young when she was diagnosed to know much about diabetes, she remembers the day her family found out about her condition clearly.
“It was July 25th, 2011. I got flown to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and I was in the ICU for a few days – then a regular room for a few more days [after that]. It was a really scary experience.”
“I wasn’t sure what the future would hold for me.”
What she did know, though, was that she wanted her future to involve hockey.
Riley first decided to make the move from gymnastics to hockey on a whim.
“One day, my mom took a nap and I told my dad I hated gymnastics and wanted to try hockey. While she slept, we went and got outfitted for hockey and got all our gear – so when my mom woke up, [my sister and I] were hockey players.”
She and her sister, who both made the switch that day, have grown up playing hockey in Arizona – first at Gilbert Ice, then with the Lady Coyotes.
It’s certainly not easy for Riley, juggling diabetes and hockey – but she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Riley’s routine has to be a little different from that of other hockey players, in order to help her try and avoid potential health risks while she’s playing.
The first thing she does before every game is drink a sugar and electrolyte-heavy sports drink, which helps her keep her blood sugar up during the game – something that players without diabetes don’t have to think about nearly as much while they play.
|Max Domi and Riley Benson |
She’s on an insulin pump, but still has to be careful. When she gets tired, it’s just as likely that it’s from a lack of blood sugar as it is due to simple physical exhaustion. Where any other player could try and push through their fatigue, that’s not an option for Riley; she has to stop playing and replenish her blood sugar in order to keep going; it’s not just fatigue, it’s a sign that something is potentially going wrong. Where the insulin another player’s body produces regulates this for them, Riley’s body is unable to help her out – so she has to maintain the balance herself.
Of course, this doesn’t stop her from loving the game.
Diabetes may mean that Riley has to be careful when she plays, but it doesn’t prevent her from being able to play. Like Domi, Riley is able to have a successful hockey career despite her condition – something that having Domi in the NHL has reminded her is possible.
“I’ve met Max,” said Riley, who got the chance to skate with the Coyotes forward earlier this year, “and he’s a huge inspiration to me. Seeing him play shows me that I can do anything I set my mind to.”
“Fans should know that having diabetes doesn’t stop you; it’s just another hurdle,” she insisted. “You can handle anything as long as you take care of yourself.”