Laurie Hernandez: Type 2 Diabetes is a Team Sport
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
As a gold and silver U.S. Olympic medalist, Laurie Hernandez knows to be at the top of your game, you need people by your side to reach your goals. As a daughter of a person with type 2 diabetes, Laurie understands that approach also applies to managing the chronic condition. Read our discussion with Laurie below about how she supports her father in managing type 2 diabetes to show that it is, indeed, a team sport. For the full discussion, watch the video here.
BT2: Thanks for joining us, Laurie! Tell us about yourself.
Laurie Hernandez: I was part of the 2016 Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team and currently training for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games. I am also partnered with Eli Lilly and Company’s once-weekly Trulicity to talk about my dad and his journey with type 2 diabetes.
Note: Since this interview was conducted, Laurie will not be participating in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics due to a knee injury.
How has your father inspired you during your journey to becoming an Olympian?
Since I was a little kid, I always watched my dad take care of himself by pricking his finger and taking his medication. When you’re a kid and see that, you don’t really think anything of it. But subconsciously, I started to realize I was watching him do preventative work. Being a professional athlete, I take care of myself because I watched him do it. That is such an important part of my journey: doing preventative work, going to physical therapy and doing anything necessary to make sure I can be the best person I can be. My dad played a really big role in that.
We speak often at Beyond type 2 about how support can make living with type 2 diabetes so much easier. Do you know what his diagnosis was like?
He was diagnosed in his mid-40s, prior to when I was born. It was something that I just watched him manage as I grew up. I remember being little and watching him prick his finger and wondering why he was doing it. He told me he had to check his blood sugar to make sure he was okay. My grandmother had type 1 diabetes and would do the same, as well as take her insulin every morning and night. Eventually, her hands became unsteady, and I helped her with her insulin shots. There was a lot of representation in our household. My roommate, and fellow athlete, was also recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and is also training for the Olympics.
Would you mind talking about some of the misconceptions that you and your father have learned and tried to overcome?
I’m sure there’s more than I can imagine, but the main one would be about food and what you can and can’t have. For my dad, it’s about understanding what’s making his blood sugar spike and how he can be proactive about it. Another major misconception is that eating too much sugar triggers diabetes. Diabetes has a significant genetic component that contributes to someone being diagnosed. You don’t have to stop living your life because other people have misconceptions about diabetes. It’s just managing it and doing things that make you feel comfortable, but that does not have to stop you from doing anything.
What are some favorite foods you and your father enjoy?
Whenever I’d have a bad workout when I was a kid, ice cream was our go-to thing. He loves vanilla ice cream with caramel on top. I didn’t understand how big of a deal that was for him to suggest our ice cream trips because I didn’t understand his struggles [with diabetes]; he just wanted me to feel good and be happy. Homemade cookies [in our house] are a big thing. We don’t have limits to anything, but we make sure we take the necessary precautions to make sure he can enjoy it and be okay.
How has your father’s journey with diabetes inspired you to stay healthy and remain competitive?
It goes back to watching him care for himself. If I have an injury. I do my best to not let it linger. I know that my body is a vessel that wants to love, protect and take care of you. The best thing I can do is be preventative and know my body is rooting for me. There’s a lot of grace in caring for my body and that’s how I started to see it in doing gymnastics. I know that having “off” days happen but that doesn’t mean failure. It’s an experiment, you’re learning how your body is working and if one thing doesn’t work out, you can try something different the next day. You’re doing the best you can.
This is a whole lifelong journey and it’s not going to be perfect. As someone who doesn’t have diabetes, being supportive, loving unconditionally and not being the diabetes police or helicopter is what’s important.
What advice or words of encouragement could you give to people who are trying to be better supportive members?
I think the biggest thing is when it comes to someone’s diabetes, it is not about you. For some people that is a very tough thing to understand. If someone is having a low and they’re getting moody or panicky, don’t blame them for their situation. That’s not helpful. What is helpful is asking how you can help and leave it at that.
If somebody is having sugar or if somebody is having sweets or food that they enjoy, who are you to tell them they can’t have it? This is something that they understand how it affects them. It’s understandable that you want to be protective, but that doesn’t mean you need to tell them how to live their lives. They know how to do that already. I promise you.
A support system is important because diabetes burnout is absolutely a real thing. My roommate, who’s quite the minimalist, had learned about it. She has to carry a purse of her insulin pens, and glucagon if she gets too low and passes out. It became stressful and overwhelming. As a supporter, the biggest thing I could do at that moment was to let her vent and express her feelings. I didn’t have to “fix” anything. I let her know whatever she needed to do next, I’m there for her. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.
Is there anything else that you would love our audience to know about you and your father’s journey in type 2 diabetes?
For those who have either type 1 or type 2, it doesn’t have to stop you from doing the things that you enjoy. It’s just understanding how your body works and how you can work with that. For those who don’t have diabetes, but somebody in your inner circle does, know that this person’s life doesn’t stop. All you need to do is show up with love and support. Know they aren’t defined by their diabetes—it’s just part of their lives.
Although this interview discusses Trulicity, a Founding Partner of Beyond Type 2, it was not conducted as a part of that partnership. Beyond Type 2 maintains full editorial control on our platforms.