Sean Busby was introduced to snowboarding through a friend at age 12 and was excelling in the sport by age 14. He craved the intense speed, sharp wind, the blurry trees outlining the courses and the occasional layer of slushy snow on his board.
When Sean felt he had attained enough skill, he started entering himself into competitions in his home state of California and competed in freestyle events on half pipes, which are large pool-looking structures on which snowboarders can consecutively demonstrate tricks. However, his interest and devotion to the sport shifted one day when his freestyle snowboard was stolen and he had to borrow his coach’s alpine snowboard (designed for descending mountains) if he was to compete at all. Though initially apprehensive about trying a new aspect of the sport, Sean encountered a rush more thrilling than ones he had felt on half-pipes, and it made him realize he wanted to become a professional snowboarder.
By the time Sean was in his late teens and early 20s, he had earned the support of many sponsors and was entering himself in some of the sport’s most upscale competitions. Having just successfully raced in Canada’s National Championships in March of 2004, Sean returned to the United States with an unquenchable thirst. He casually attributed it to his rigorous training and the warm climate in California. But his condition started to get serious when Sean was vomiting after every meal and lost 30 pounds in two weeks. “It actually got so bad that I was afraid to eat anything because I knew if I did, my head would be back in that trash can two hours later.” He had to halt all aspects of his training because he was too weak and his sponsors began to drop his name from their labels because he wasn’t competing. “I tried very hard to re-motivate myself but I started to think about abandoning the sport. There didn’t seem like there was anything else I could do.”
Sean was finally admitted to the hospital for 12 days in early April and though doctors suspected diabetes, they diagnosed him with pneumonia instead. After not getting any better while undergoing treatment for pneumonia, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes toward the end of the month and placed on medication. His symptoms persisted through June, and Sean was finally given the correct diagnosis of type 1 diabetes in early July. “After that first shot of insulin, I felt like a human being again. I was happy to find out what was wrong, but I was scared for what diabetes would mean for my snowboarding.”
Luckily, Sean found the inspiration that convinced him to continue with his sport. While visiting JDRF’s Web site, he came across pictures from Children’s Congress, an event in which JDRF brings 150 kids with type 1 diabetes and their families to speak in front of Members of Congress in Washington, D.C., about the importance of federal funding for type 1 diabetes research. “I read the stories and saw the pictures of these kids, and how some of them knew nothing other than a life with diabetes. They were doing the birthday parties and sleepovers with insulin shots and testing their sugars on first dates. I realized living with type 1 diabetes didn’t have to be different than my old life. I would have to become more responsible, but that wasn’t a bad thing at all.”
After he committed to reclaiming his snowboarding career, it became clear to Sean there were many aspects of the sport that could affect his diabetes. The mountain’s altitude, climate, degree of physical exertion, and other riding conditions could make his blood sugar rise and fall, so Sean had to find ways to be prepared for mild and severe fluctuations when on a mountain. “Since there was no book to follow, I had to create a way to wear my pump inside my speed suit, which I place in an old knee-brace and strap around my thigh. My movements aren’t restricted and the insulin doesn’t freeze. And I make sure to take extra supplies.” Additionally, Sean always carries a bottle of honey to treat his lows, and even though it doesn’t hold up too well in frigid temperatures, he loves the taste.
Once he got his life with diabetes under control, Sean turned his efforts to kids. He started the first “Riding on Insulin” camp in December 2004, which allowed kids with diabetes to try snowboarding under the supervision of professional snowboarders and doctors. In a safe environment, Sean discusses the importance of testing his blood sugar, taking insulin, exercising, and the dynamics of sports in general while teaching snowboarding.
“At camp, these kids become confident when they see themselves on a board for the first time. They are eager to talk about snowboarding, but also their diabetes. I always love it when they share their diabetes tips with me!” He’s held camps in California, Idaho, Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, and is planning others in Australia, New Zealand, and Finland.
On October 26, 2008, Sean challenged his body in an entirely new way when he took a trip to Antarctica. In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month (November) and World Diabetes Day (November 14), Sean took on icy temperatures to see how his diabetes would react in one of the world’s harshest environments by climbing peaks and snowboarding down them. Over the course of the trip, Sean conducted live broadcasts of himself and his team with various hospitals and foundations, and his journey was viewable on his Web site, http://www.seanbusby.com/.