Back to More Writing page

Olympics Dispatch III: Victorious Posted 08/23/2004

Anne Peters Harmel, MD

Athens Airport, 5:00 AM, Saturday, August 21, 2004 -- Gary won the gold. Unbelievable. He did it. He did it for himself, his family and friends, and for all people with diabetes. He says he'll give his gold medal to the person who finds the cure. I hope he has to give it away soon. But for now he inspires; he inspires me and all of the people in the world who live every day with the disease that is diabetes.

The race was 21.93 seconds of pure speed through water. All day I'd tried to calm myself, rationalizing that win or lose he was the same Gary to me. I said I didn't care about competition (a comment Gary's sweet siblings teased me with later, as I staggered up the stands to them after Gary won, so overcome with joy and emotion that I could barely walk). As the race grew close, I sat alone in the stands, surrounded by a sea of orange-clad fans from The Netherlands. In front of me was a family from Australia, wearing tee-shirts that said in turn, "Chelle's Mum," "Chelle's Sis," and "Chelle's Dad."

The sun was setting behind the stadium, descending below the hills of Athens. The crowd was cast in the lengthening shadows of evening fading into night. An agonizing number of races preceded Gary's. The women's 200-meter backstroke won by Kristy Coventry of Zimbabwe; the men's 100-meter butterfly, giving Michael Phelps his fifth gold medal; the endless women's 800-meter freestyle, won by Japanese swimmer Ai Shibata, whose mother sobbed uncontrollably after the race. Finally, the awards ceremonies for the first 2 events. Then, suddenly, it was time.

Gary emerged, covering his USA Swimming-issue warm-up suit with a red, white, and blue silk boxer's robe and shorts -- even in lane 2, a less than desirable position, he showed some of his characteristic bravado. It took longer to announce the swimmers than for the race to be swum. I was on my feet from the start. The 8 men tore across the pool, so close together it was impossible to tell who won until a "1" flashed on the scoreboard next to Gary's name. "He won!" I shrieked, "Gary won!" I started shaking uncontrollably. I could barely breathe. I didn't know what to do except to leap in the air for joy. The guys sitting next to me asked if I was okay. "More than okay," I said. Definitely more than okay. All those long days of sweltering Athens heat, the waiting, the anticipation, it was over. And resolved in the best possible way, at least for me.

Gary won by 0.01 of a second. Duje Draganja, his friend from Croatia, had a time of 21.74. In distance this translates to a difference of about 1 fingertip -- 1 distal phalanx -- between the two. Watching the replay of the race in the NBC Athens headquarters, I saw Gary's long hand reach out and touch the wall first. It made me think of how many times a day Gary pokes those fingertips with a lancet to check his blood sugar levels. And how hard he has worked to get where he is today -- so much harder than most. His fingertips help keep him alive by providing the data he needs to balance his blood sugar levels; his fingertips help win Olympic gold medals.

I celebrated for most of the night with Gary's large family and other assorted members of his support team. We sat on an outside patio in a traditional Greek restaurant and were treated like royalty by the staff, who stayed open long past closing time. At 1:45 AM Gary showed up, exhausted but happy. There were hugs, tears, and a sharing of the joy we all felt. When Gary handed me his medal to hold and examine, I thought of the remarkable path he's taken. In 1996, before he had diabetes, he won a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle; in 1998 he was told his swimming career was over because he had type 1 diabetes. Just 2 years later he was back, and tied for gold in the 2000 Olympics. Now, 4 years later, with diabetes that is harder to treat than ever because he has lost much of his residual beta-cell function, he has won a gold medal in his event all for himself. He has only gotten better with diabetes and age. When asked why he does it, why he pushes himself so hard, he says, simply "I just love to race." And he doesn't let much get in his way.

Gary has taught me what is possible with diabetes. And although I understand that diabetes is tough, it is controllable. Along the way people can lead the lives they aspire to, with role models like Gary to light the way. So as I head back to Los Angeles, where busy days of clinic await me, Gary is having a well-deserved vacation in Athens where he is dreaming of Beijing in 2008.

Back to More Writing page

Medscape Diabetes & Endocrinology 6(2), 2004. 2004 Medscape