“This could be diabetes and that’s my international rowing career over”

Five-time Olympic champion, Steve Redgrave, tells OT  about being diagnosed with diabetes three years before the Sydney Olympics

Steve Redgrave

When I was asked to be involved as a Transforming eye health ambassador for the Specsavers and Royal National Institute of Blind People campaign, I was very much in favour of encouraging people to go and get regular eye tests.

I’ve been a diabetic since 1997. When you’re diagnosed, you’re made aware that eyesight can be affected. You’re looked after well, but there’s a lot of people living with diabetes that don’t realise it, which could be affecting their eyesight. By having a regular eye test, your optometrist will be able to pick up a few different types of conditions, so it’s a good health check, as well as a good eye test.

Olympic ambition

I became a diabetic three years before my last Olympics. I was shocked. My grandfather was diabetic, but you always think it’s never going to happen to you. I can remember the period of time between being referred by my GP and seeing the consultant and thinking ‘this could be diabetes and that’s my international rowing career over.’

The specialist who I saw at Wickham General Hospital was called Ian Gallant. Right at the end of the consultation as he shook my hand and showed me out the door, he said to me, ‘I don’t see any reason why you can’t carry on doing the sport you’re doing and compete at the Olympics in three years’ time,’ which I wasn’t expecting to hear. That obviously had a big impact on me and I came up with a statement at the time that diabetes has to live with me, not me live with diabetes. It had quite a big effect on my lifestyle from then on.

"This could be diabetes and that’s my international rowing career over"

Ian told me that it wasn't not going to be straightforward, but that he was prepared to help me on the path forward. He said it with confidence and I thought that because he’s a doctor who specialises in diabetes, that this is what everyone must get told whatever their situation may be. It wasn’t until after I’d won in Sydney when we did a conference with other diabetic specialists that I found out more.

There was a presentation, my wife spoke as my spouse and team doctor, I spoke as the athlete and Ian as the specialist. We opened it up to a Q&A and one guy said, ‘you’re very lucky.’ And I thought, ‘that’s a bit cheeky, I’ve worked very hard for what I’ve achieved.’ He said, ‘you misunderstand me, if you had come to my clinic or that of most of the people in this room, we would’ve told you that you couldn’t do what you’ve just done.’ Ian then admitted that he was confident clinically that there wasn’t going to be any problems, but he wasn’t sure what was going to happen in practise. Actually, the racing is the easier side of it. The training and preparation for races was the harder bit.

Taking it seriously

You’re given a lot of information on the day you’re diagnosed and it’s difficult to take it all in. You’re almost in a bit of denial, especially being an athlete. You’re thinking, ‘I am a diabetic now and I have to take insulin, but my body will still look after me.’ You need that information from day one, but you also need to have it drip-fed to you over a period of time as well.

The advice is to have those regular checks. Don’t take it for granted and don’t be a stick in the mud and think ‘it’s not going to happen to me.’ The chances are, if you’re a diabetic and you don’t look after yourself, things will become an issue. Get to grips with it as soon as possible and take the specialist’s advice. When the form comes through to have that retinal scan, go and do it.

I experienced a bit of deterioration two years ago and it does give you a little bit of a shot in the arm to take it seriously and realise that it can happen to you. I’ve always tried to look after my diabetes as well as possible, but since that time I’ve been even tighter with my control and it hasn’t got any worse since then.