Nick’s brave fight

July 9, 2015

Year 12 student Nick McKenna has overcome difficult odds to be a crucial member of the St Patrick’s Rowing Program in 2015.

When he was diagnosed with diabetes four years ago, many would have forgiven him for putting aside his hopes of representing the College in the arduous sport.

However, through grim tenacity Nick’s story is now one of inspiration.

This week (July 12-18) marks National Diabetes Week and Nick’s story will be the focus of a campaign through Diabetes Victoria as an inspiration to others diagnosed with the disease.

Following we are pleased to share Nick’s story as penned by his mother Claire.

Nick’s rowing journey

The shock of a Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis, especially when there isn’t anyone else in the family with the disease, takes a while to adjust, some longer than others, trying to create a new normal.

When my son Nick was diagnosed at 13 someone told him that he may not be able to do all the same sports that he use to do.- Some might take this advice on, or, as in the case of Nick, made him all the more determined to show people that just because he has diabetes doesn’t mean he can’t do school boy rowing.

Nick describes rowing as a lifestyle choice, rather than a sport, which is probably a better description.- – We are fortunate to live in a regional city where rowing is an important sport and so the opportunity was open to Nick to pursue the dream of rowing at -Head of the Lake- and winning in front of the thousands of school boys and girls cheering on the sidelines.- His older sister and very close family friend had loved rowing and enjoyed Head of the Lake success.- So this was also a big motivator for Nick.

I decided not to attend the first rowing camp as a way of giving Nick the confidence to manage his diabetes himself.- After the first day of training and a bad hypo I thought this might not have been such a good strategy.- – Fortunately the staff were incredibly supportive and understood that they needed to take Nick aside and tell him exactly what the planned activities were and that there was no room for innovation.- They also understood when Nick said he couldn’t do a particular session because his levels were too low.- Despite all this I attended all future rowing camps, which was a big relief to all involved.

There isn’t a lot of information on intense exercise and diabetes.- I remember the first time I found some information on sport and diabetes was a flyer in the waiting room of the diabetes educator.- The first part of the flyer said -One in 20 people with Type 1 Diabetes die when doing sport-.- I put that one back and realised it was going to be trial and error.

Training for juniors isn’t anywhere as intense for the seniors so Nick was able to try different strategies to keep his sugars up when training.- Fortunately Nick got a pump for his second rowing season.- We both agree that without the pump it would have been just too hard to continue.- There were times when he would get so frustrated because he wasn’t at an optimum level for training or just too scared to push himself to the limit on testing sessions.- He could range between 2.8 to 28!- The high levels would happen when he would load up on the sugars but then someone didn’t turn up to training, and so they didn’t go out in the boat.

Unlike most team sports, the biggest issue for training in rowing is that everyone in the crew has to turn up, if they don’t then you can’t really train.- – So Nick dutifully turned up to every session, unless he was unwell.- Unfortunately the unwell part is more inevitable for someone with Type 1.- Nick was put in the lowest crew, but they had the best chance of winning, which they did.-

As Nick continued through the seasons he went up a crew level, so for his final year Nick’s ambition was to be in the senior second crew, which would also mean getting to complete at the National Rowing Championships in Sydney.- Training was six times a week for around 1.5 to 2hrs each session.- The morning sessions were a real issue because he would need to eat a large amount before bed and, at the suggestion of the diabetes educator, half a glass of concentrated cordial at 5.30 in the morning.- The hardest part was getting fitter.- Again the diabetes educator worked out that Nick got low six hours after training.- So if training finished at- 7.00pm- then he would get low at- 1.00am.- It isn’t fun trying to eat lollies, raisin toast and a glass milo at that time of the morning.- I spent weeks waking up Nick at 1.00am to check his blood, just to make sure he would wake up in the morning.

Olympic champion and former old boy rower, James Marburg, spoke at the rowing awards night in Nick’s second last season.- At the end of the night we asked James if he knew any elite rowers who – had diabetes.- He said there was a Canadian a few years ago, otherwise no.- But James went on to say – that elite sports people have to get to know their body really well, what it can and can’t do, to do best.- James said -you already know your body really well, so you are ahead of the rest-.- Nick would test around 15 times a day, constantly adjusting to be at his best, so he did know his body really well and I was able to use James comments many times as a motivator for Nick.- Nick managed his diabetes in order to row, a much stronger motivator than just managing diabetes.

Nick got more confident about pushing his body to the limit and was very excited to have test times up with the best of the boys in the shed.- – The rowing coaches and other senior boys were very supportive of Nick.- Some had a better understanding than others but overall they knew that if Nick said his levels weren’t right they would patiently wait for him to stuff down lollies and test, again! So after a huge amount of work Nick was chosen for -the Seconds-.- There is something so satisfying achieving a goal

The ladies at the school sick bay were also incredibly supportive.- They allowed Nick the occasional snooze after morning training because when people with Type I get really tired their levels can be impacted.- They would phone me up to come and get Nick when his levels just weren’t behaving.- It is that kind of broad support that made it all possible.

Head of the Lake seemed to come around quickly but Nick’s crew was ready.- He had been promoted to the position of stroke, the person who sets the tempo of the boat.- The coach was excellent and prepared the crew as well as he could.- After a tight race and lots of screaming from spectators (especially his Mum), they won!- The excitement was incredible.- All that work and they got there!

That night Nick said he would never, ever forget that race, the burn of the muscles, then pushing harder, and harder again, and even harder again.- Then the elation of winning; the show of pride in front of the cheer squad; the medal presentation;- all that time and huge effort; it was all worth it.

The following morning the phone rang at- 7.15am.- Those calls are usually worrying but this one was to ask Nick if he wanted to train with -The Firsts- since he had rowed so well the day before.- This had surpassed any dream.- Funnily enough, even though on Sunday Nick thought he wouldn’t be able to move a muscle for the next week, he managed training on Monday night as stroke of -The Firsts-.- Presentation night was a week later where Nick was awarded the -Brian Vear – most accomplished rower in the shed- award.- Talk about proud parents!- – It took Nick a few days to accept that he had been given the award.- Again, far beyond the dream.

Nick was diagnosed with appendicitis two weeks later.- Fortunately we had a supportive surgeon and the pain subsided enough that Nick could still go to -The Nationals-.- He was dropped back to The Seconds but he was very accepting as he had spent a couple of weeks in the Firsts.

The rowing nationals was a huge event and very exciting, at the Olympic course in Penrith.- The crew got third in the -B- final, which means they are the 11th– best in Australia.- Another local school, Ballarat Grammar, took out the Championships for their division, so everyone connected with Nick’s school joined in to celebrate a Ballarat success.

It brings a tear to my eye writing this story because I’m just so proud of Nick, as is the whole family.- I’m now able to say to Nick that no matter how hard life gets he know he will be able to overcome- hurdles as they come along in life.- His approach to exams has now changed knowing that if he prepares well and stays focused he will do well.

Having diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t achieve a dream.- With hard work, great planning, incredible determination, and lots of support, you might just even go beyond your dream.