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The first thing you notice about 13-year-old Alyssa Coulter is her confidence. Then you can't miss her passion for hockey.

This past summer, Alyssa took her game to a new level with coaching from elite athletes such as Ottawa Senators forward Cory Conacher and Olympic rower Chris Jarvis. Alyssa had a chance to meet the two this summer at Dskate, a hockey camp designed to help children with type 1 diabetes improve their on-ice skills, while learning more about managing the disease.

The disease requires constant management. Low blood glucose (sugar) can lead to unconsciousness and death; over time, high blood glucose can lead to complications such as blindness and amputations.

After she was diagnosed at just 18 months old, Alyssa's parents struggled to keep her levels on track. "She didn't want to eat when she was supposed to," recalls her mom, Lori.


At Dskate hockey camp, Ottawa Senators forward Cory Conacher inspires and mentors younger players who also have type 1 diabetes. SUPPLIED


But since starting on an insulin pump at age three, Alyssa says that her diabetes hasn't stood in her way. "Sometimes I have to stop for a second to check my blood sugar, but it doesn't stop me from doing the things I like, like having sleepovers with my friends or having a snack when I want to. It gives me more freedom."

Type 1 diabetes is something Alyssa learned that she has in common with Mr. Conacher and Mr. Jarvis, accomplished athletes who credit determination, the support of the diabetes community and their Medtronic insulin pump and continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems with helping them to reach their athletic potential.

Recent clinical studies demonstrate that using an insulin pump with CGM can help reduce hypoglycemia, a fear many athletes and people living with diabetes have.

"The insulin pump and CGM system has helped me take some of the guess work out. It gives me more peace of mind that my numbers are under control," comments Mr. Conacher, who understands the importance of managing his diabetes when playing at such an elite level in the NHL.

Dr. Michael Riddell, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science and Muscle Health Research Centre at York University, headed up the educational component of the camp. "These kids are learning about their blood sugar changes during sport, how to best modify their insulin and diet, as well as how to prevent high and low blood sugars using some of the technology that is available today," states Dr. Riddell.

"Everyone at DSkate has diabetes," explains Alyssa. "It was great to hear their stories; to not feel different." For all of the players who attended, she says, "it really boosted our confidence."

Mr. Jarvis, who rowed for Canada in the 2004 Olympic Games and won gold in the Pan Am Games in 2007, was Alyssa's age when he was first diagnosed. "I was a big brother to a sister with diabetes, so I tried to make it seem like it was no big deal. I didn't want to be different."

At first, he didn't tell anyone outside his family that he had the disease, and he tried to manage his glucose levels through trial and error. "I got myself into a lot of trouble," he says.

A decade ago, he decided to break through that isolation. Since then, Mr. Jarvis has become as well known for his work in the diabetes community as for his rowing achievements. "Compared to my first nine years with diabetes, the last 10 years have been dramatically different," he reports. "I have learned a lot about diabetes management and have been able to use incredible new technology."

Although he was once told he should limit his activity to a daily step class, he went on to train five hours each day for the Olympics with the help of his insulin pump and CGM system. He has also founded a charity, I Challenge Diabetes, which helps people with diabetes safely reach their physical potential.

This past summer, he and seven other people with diabetes tackled the iconic West Coast Trail, a tough, 75-kilometre hike. "Not only did we get to see amazing natural formations and wildlife, but we got to enjoy the experience in the company of other people with diabetes," he says. "We had the support of others who knew what to do and when to do it."

That mentorship and support was also evident at Dskate camp, says Mr. Jarvis. "These mentoring concepts work in business, sport, in family life and with diabetes, too," he says.

He attributes his inspiring life philosophy to international Olympic rowing coach Mike Spracklen. "He taught us that everybody is going through challenges of one kind or another. Accepting these challenges and then figuring out how to address them allows you to become all that you can be."

There are many people with diabetes excelling in sports, business and life, adds Mr. Jarvis. "It doesn't take away the challenges they have, and that's okay, because everyone faces challenges. Diabetes is a challenge to live with, but when you tackle it as a team and work hard, you find that there are so many beautiful, enriching experiences ahead of you."

For more information on DSkate camp, visit www.dskatehockey.ca.


BY THE NUMBERS


More than 9 million Canadians
are living with diabetes or prediabetes:

3.1 million diagnosed with diabetes (type 1 and type 2 diabetes)

1 million with undiagnosed diabetes

5.6 million living with prediabetes