Diabetes Daily

The Extraordinary Almost-Olympian Charlotte Drury and the Trials of Type 1 Diabetes – Diabetes Daily

It was 2020 – right around the dawn of the pandemic in the United States – when Charlotte Drury’s athletic abilities mysteriously began to decline.

“I wasn’t building any muscle, I wasn’t getting any better. And I was training more and more because I could feel myself regressing. My skills just got worse and worse.”

Charlotte, now 25, is a trampoline gymnast. She’s a former world champion and knows her body well. She knew something was wrong.

“Am I just past my prime? Am I not trying hard enough?”

“Looking back, it’s nice to have an explanation that it wasn’t my fault.”

It wasn’t her fault. Charlotte Drury was about to find out that she had type 1 diabetes.

The Lost Year

If gymnastics fans already know Charlotte Drury for one thing, it’s for an earlier and unrelated health catastrophe. In 2016, with the Rio Olympics about to take place, Charlotte was considered America’s best female trampoline gymnast. In previous years she had won individual gold at both the World Cup and the USA Gymnastics Championships. But her Olympics dream was crushed when she broke her ankle during the final qualifying event of the season.

The tragic injury could have ended her competitive career, but Charlotte decided to give the Olympics another shot. She’s fearless—you sort of have to be to make a living flying 30 feet into the air while flipping and twisting.

“I was on top of my game when the pandemic hit. But suddenly, I was all by myself, and training started to get really, really hard. At first, I just chalked it up to training alone in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Later, I was struggling with some depression. I told myself, you’re probably just fatigued from the depression, it’s in your head, you just have to push through.”

It wasn’t in her head. Charlotte was suffering from acute hyperglycemia due to her undiagnosed type 1 diabetes. The critical lack of insulin in her body meant that she wasn’t getting energy from the food she ate. Insulin is a growth hormone and promotes fat storage; without it, our muscles falter, our bodies wither, and the calories we desperately need are flushed uselessly out with our urine.

Later she would recognize that there were other red flags – a bizarrely increased thirst, a new tendency to pee in the middle of the night. But as her body failed her in real-time, she found reasons to disbelieve what was happening.

“I basically gaslit myself into believing it was all in my head for almost a year.”

In December 2020, Charlotte visited her doctor to discuss her depression, which she mistakenly thought was at the root of her troubles. Shockingly, she was still four months away from understanding what was plaguing her. Finally, the mounting setbacks just became too much to ignore.

“In April [2021], we had a national team training camp. I knew how hard I’d been working, and I was looking at everyone around me and realized that there was something wrong with me. There’s absolutely no way I could be this far behind. Something was wrong.”

“There’s a lot of power needed in this sport. I could barely make my triples anymore, and I’ve been making those skills since I was 16.”

The Diagnosis

As soon as Charlotte got home from the camp, she called her doctor, who ordered up bloodwork. Soon thereafter the doctor called her and told her that she was experiencing a medical emergency.

“She said, ‘You have type 1 diabetes. You need to come in right now.’”

Charlotte’s A1c was 14.6%, and her blood glucose over 500 mg/dL. Despite the length of time it took to get a proper diagnosis, she can probably still thank her uncommon awareness of her own physical condition for avoiding diabetic ketoacidosis. Had she not been so in tune with her physical fitness, as professional athletes need to be, who knows how long it would have taken to make that call to the doctor?

Now at last she had an explanation, but a bittersweet one—her life had changed unalterably. And, oh yeah, if she wanted a chance to join the competition she’d spend her entire life preparing for, she had just a few months to figure everything out.

Charlotte Drury Bounces Back

For the first two weeks, she was “miserable.”

“Mentally I was just done. I thought there was no way I could go to the Olympics. There’s no way I can figure out how to manage this, get healthy and strong enough, and train in three months. It was really, really overwhelming.”

At first Charlotte was only taking basal insulin, so “I was still having these crazy mealtime spikes.” It took days of advocacy by her diabetes educator to get the prescription for fast-acting mealtime insulin that she so clearly needed. And she was still coming to grips with the enormity of her diagnosis.

“When I first was told that I had to start mealtime insulin, I just broke down and started crying. I have to do what every time I eat?

But once Charlotte started using rapid mealtime insulin, “it was an incredible turnaround.”

“After two weeks of getting my blood sugars back in range, I literally felt like a different person. A completely different person.”

Her training improved overnight. She regained energy and mental clarity. Her muscles came back to life.

“I had no idea how bad I was feeling until I started to feel good. And now I will do anything to feel this good. I will do the injections, I will monitor, I will wear whatever devices you want – anything to feel good again.”

And suddenly, the Olympics didn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

Trials and Tribulations

Charlotte’s comeback was never going to be easy.

In a mini-documentary filmed prior to her diagnosis—highly recommended for a good look at how insane trampoline gymnastics really is—Charlotte says that repeatedly bouncing as high as 30 feet into the air feels like riding a rollercoaster. The blood sugar rollercoaster was not what she had in mind.

Consider, for a moment, just how dangerous hypoglycemia could be in the life of a trampoline gymnast. Imagine first perceiving a severe blood sugar low while you’re soaring through the air, and what might happen when you land with anything less than precise technique.

The first time Charlotte got hit with a blood sugar low on the trampoline, “I immediately started crying and hyperventilating. ‘Something’s wrong, get me off the equipment!’”

Now imagine developing a comprehensive eating and insulin dosing regimen that allows you to maximize your athletic potential on the global stage, and doing it in a matter of weeks.

“I’m still in the days of figuring it out.”

Charlotte told me that trampoline training is more or less like the most difficult HIIT or CrossFit exercise you’ve ever imagined. 20 seconds of pure max effort, a minute or two of rest, and repeat. For two hours. Those intense workouts are usually preceded by some 30 minutes of vigorous warmup work, cardio that can drive blood sugar down before the stress and effort of the routine drives it back up. Good luck preparing properly for all that.

“It’s a lot of moving parts.”

Life still throws up curveballs. Just when Charlotte thought she had a system down, a trip to Italy for an important round of Olympic trials taught her just how powerfully unanticipated variables can impact diabetes management.

“Everything I knew went out the window.”

During her first practice in Italy, her blood sugar dropped from 100 mg/dL to 48 within 5 minutes. “It felt like I got hit by a wall. It took me three juiceboxes to get back to 70.” That hypo took a full 30 minutes to recover from, 30 minutes of vital practice time on competition equipment that she lost and couldn’t get back.

A Gold Medal Teammate

One of her “saving graces” has been her roommate, the Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, who has had close family members with insulin-treated type 2 diabetes. Actually, it was Laurie who first told me Charlotte’s story.

“Laurie came in clutch. She came to my doctor’s appointment, she came to my endo appointment, she was taking notes, she’s my Dexcom pal and when I go low in the night she opens a juicebox and brings it to me.”

“There’s a lot of things that I’m very grateful for. When it rains, it pours, but I’ve got a lot of friends and support to help hold an umbrella up.”

The 2021 Olympics

When I first talked to Charlotte, she had completed two of the three trial events that would determine which Americans would make the Olympic team. Despite her remarkable turnaround since beginning insulin treatment, she still wasn’t yet performing at her peak, and her scores reflected that. To make the Olympics, she told me, “I’m gonna have to pull out something pretty amazing in the last trial.”

She almost did exactly that. At the USA Gymnastics Championships in late June, Charlotte nailed her routine and placed second. It didn’t get her the coveted single spot as an Olympic competitor, but was good enough to get her named the alternate on the team. In the following days, she was downgraded to second alternate after a controversial decision to let another teammate re-try her routine. So, Charlotte will be going to Tokyo as a member of the Olympic team, but with an exceedingly low chance of actually competing.

There’s no question in Charlotte Drury’s mind that if she hadn’t developed type 1 diabetes, she’d be competing in Tokyo. But an entire year of frustrating and ineffective practice was just too much to overcome.

Looking Forward

Charlotte hasn’t ruled out another run on the Olympics. The Paris games are only three years away, after all, and her strong final performance has her optimistic about her potential to earn the spot that she might have already won twice were it not for medical disaster. She told me that she’d like to see what she’s capable of after she regains her peak physical condition and combines it with the hard-earned wisdom of the last five difficult years.

Meanwhile, she’s strategizing how to get started on her dream career, a good one for an uncommonly sensitive and fearless young woman. Charlotte wants to be a photojournalist, documenting global suffering and conflict, and is ready to throw herself into war zones to do it.

No matter what comes next, she’s determined that her new condition won’t get in her way: “This won’t stop me.”

“I want to be proud of how far I’ve come so quickly, but at the same time, I didn’t really have a choice, just like anyone with type 1.”

 

All photos courtesy of Charlotte Drury.



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