Making a Big Splash

By Julie Mettenburg

 

On July 12, Gary Hall Jr. will be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame at the Harris Theater in Chicago. It’s a fitting honor for this athlete who has shattered records along with barriers for athletes with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Hall was diagnosed with T1D in March 1999 at age 24, at the peak of his swimming career—or so the world thought. He had competed at the 1996 Olympics, winning two gold medals and two silver medals. With the diagnosis of T1D, he was told his career was over.

“That was a life-changing experience, the diagnosis. My life path veered drastically, even though I remained in the sport of swimming. It was no longer a top priority for me,” Hall remembers.

Then, one day in the midst of Hall’s struggle to manage his disease, a young swimmer approached him on the pool deck and shared that he also had T1D. The encounter helped inspire Hall to keep swimming.

With the help of an exceptional doctor, Anne Peters, M.D., an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, Hall decided to resume his competitive swimming career. He participated in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and won six more medals: three gold, one silver, and two bronze. His total winnings added up to five gold medals, three silver and two bronze—most of them won after his diagnosis of T1D. During his career he set several world and American swimming records in freestyle and relay events. He retired from competitive swimming in 2008, dedicating his life to advocacy and work to benefit those living with T1D.

The Seattle years

After the Olympics, Hall struggled for a few years to find his next act.

“When I retired from swimming, I explored a couple of different options,” he says. Hall co-founded an export management company based in Seattle, distributing dental products in China.

“I went through a stint where I was working hard, with something that was going well, but it wasn’t diabetes-related. I really struggled with that,” he reflects. “I wasn’t passionate about the work, and I was miserable with the weather. Going from a sunny pool deck in Phoenix or Miami Beach my whole life, I did not acclimate very well! And I missed the diabetes work.”

Committed to work for type 1 diabetes

Hall credits support from the T1D community not only with enabling him return to the sport, but also with helping him win Olympic medals after his diagnosis.

“At that point of diagnosis, my philosophy on life, and my career path, changed drastically. The appreciation that I feel to the type 1 diabetes community for their help in not just getting through a rough time, but also sustaining me as I was on top of the awards block at the Olympic games—this is powerful stuff,” he says. “So until there is a cure for this disease, being involved in the type 1 diabetes community is most important to me.”

Now 37, Hall lives with his wife and children in Santa Barbara, CA. He is a tireless advocate for JDRF, working with children and teens at the biennial JDRF Children’s Congress, serving on the Los Angeles chapter board, and participating in the government relations committee in Washington, D.C. He has testified in front of congressional subcommittees as an advocate for T1D research. At Children’s Congress, his presence, in tandem with his inspirational remarks, has encouraged hundreds of kids with T1D to follow their own dreams for success.

Hall shares that he has enjoyed learning about T1D science and getting to know researchers and JDRF leadership. He feels that the recent FDA ruling on artificial pancreas clinical trials is a huge accomplishment.

“The FDA issuing a guidance document that was informed by JDRF is more monumental than winning an Olympic medal in its respective field,” he says. “To be able to go beyond expectations is inspiring, and I certainly have been inspired by my involvement with the organization over the years.”

Hall contemplates what comes next, which for him, personally, will be advocating for insurance coverage for people with T1D. “Now that the FDA has provided a clear pathway for artificial pancreas technology, how do we get these technologies into the hands of every single patient living with diabetes?” he asks.

Hall points out an irony that he finds tragic. “As I stood on top of the awards block receiving a gold medal at the Olympic Games, I wasn’t healthy enough to buy insurance because I had type 1 diabetes. I was healthy enough to win the games and be fastest at my event in the world, but not to buy insurance,” he says. “We need to be sure that the insurance reimbursement is there for artificial pancreas technologies that are coming to market, and we obviously need to be sure that insurance coverage is available for all people living with diabetes.”

These days, along with staying connected to his passion in working to support T1D research and advocacy, Hall says his family is most important to him. “These are the fun years for sure,” he says about his kids, who are age six and four. His kids have been tested and are not at greater risk for T1D. They motivate him to work for T1D, to stay healthy himself, and to continue to fight for their future as well as for that of the many kids who will, unfortunately, develop T1D.

Hall has also served as a product spokesperson since 1999 for a supplement that is thought to support athletic performance. The nutritional supplement, Platinum Performance, was developed by a veterinarian for use in racehorses to treat joint inflammation that was inhibiting recovery after surgery. After seeing improved performance in horses with the product, a racehorse owner encouraged the development of the product for human use.

Hall acknowledges that he has helped change the world for people with T1D, but shares the credit with other athletes who also broke down barriers by achieving what was previously thought impossible, like Will Cross, who has had T1D since he was nine. “I see that same effect with any major accomplishment with diabetes in any sport. When someone like Will Cross successfully climbs to the top of Mt. Everest, these barriers come crashing down, and you see a ripple effect that grows over the years,” Hall observes. “There are now so many more role models with type 1 diabetes who have accomplished incredible things, in all sports. To think I played some small part in that, that’s humbling to acknowledge.”