She’s a multiple SUP World Champion who didn’t let type 1 diabetes stop her dreams.
03 November 2021
Fiona Wylde was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 17 years old on the same day she graduated from high school. To add to the rollercoaster, she signed her first contract to become a professional athlete at the same time. The diagnosis brought about uncertainty and she went looking for help. Her mother reached out to Team Novo Nordisk co-founder and CEO, Phil Southerland who encouraged her to keep going in her pursuit of becoming the best. 6 years later, Wylde is a multiple Stand Up Paddleboarding world champion and ranked number one in the world. This is her story.
You’ve had a unique upbringing. You grew up in Oregon and Mexico?
My parents have a seasonal business, so they work hard from March through October. When I was born, they decided to make their work seasonal rather than all year around. They took 3 or 4 months off and we were able to go down to Mexico. It was incredible for me because I went to the local school where nobody spoke English so I had to learn Spanish. I started going there when I was 3 years old and went all the way through to eighth grade.
Back home in the US, Hood River is well-known for water sports but it’s really cold in the winter so there’s good skiing close to the top of the mountain.
So did you inherit your sense of adventure from your parents?
Both my parents are windsurfers . My mom taught my dad to sail and my dad taught me how to wind surf. They would put me on my dad’s board before I even knew how to swim. I loved the feeling. I started windsurfing by myself by the time I was 7 but I didn’t really like it until I was ten. That’s when I started racing and fell in love with water sports and loved the competitive side of it. It was an opportunity for me to improve myself and I like that aspect of the competition.
We are a cycling team so can you give us a little bit of insight into what you do?
I compete in stand up surfing, and then the other part of stand up paddling is stand up racing. And that’s what I’m doing most of right now. Especially since the pandemic there’s been fewer stand up surf events. So, I’ve just been focusing on stand up racing. And stand up racing is anywhere from a 200 meter sprint up to a 28 kilometer distance paddle.
You have an incredible story. You are the world number 1 and world champion and you have type 1 diabetes. Let’s first talk a little about your diagnosis?
So I had just signed a contract with Starboard SUP which is the largest manufacturer of wind surfing and stand up paddle equipment in the world. It was my ultimate dream because I got to be part of teen Starboard and this was my chance to be a professional athlete. I raced in my first race and I wanted to do the best I could.
It was a 25.5km race and I was sitting in second until 22.5km and then I just hit the wall and everything slowed down. I got tired, I got fatigued and I got passed by four other women and finished sixth.. This was six years ago. Everybody I was racing then was in their late 20s or mid-30s. So, I chalked it up to experience and the fact that I just need more time training and need more experience on the water. And then I went straight from there to a race the following weekend. That race had my ultimate conditions – it was a downwinder, big ocean swells but the same thing happened, I just felt out of it and was slow.
Then I raced again the following weekend and was out of it even more and I saw a picture of myself crossing the finish line. I was like, ‘wow, I’m really skinny’. I didn’t have much muscle mass, which for me is not usual. I’ve always been a bit on the bulkier side. Then I was like, “Okay, I need to go home, I need to relax, recover, maybe go to a doctor’s get checked out.“
And so I did. I went to the doctor and they didn’t really think something seemed that wrong. I got a yeast infection and they gave me some medication for it. Two weeks went by and it didn’t really go away.
I was dehydrated all the time and I was super thirsty and exhausted as well as irritable. I explained all these things to my doctor, and he just looked at me and asked if anybody tested my blood sugar I did not know what he meant. And he went ahead and tested my blood sugar.
This was the exact same day you were graduating from high school, right?
I was doing online high school and that was the day I submitted all my assignments, everything was done. I was very excited to close that book. I was gonna graduate and then head off to Europe and race for the first time with Starboard and I was so, so excited that day, I was feeling great. Until the doctor pricks my finger and he goes, “Uh oh”.
It’s never good when a doctor says, “Uh oh”. He shows me the screen, and it says, 586 as we do milligrams per deciliter in America.
And I’m like: “great. What’s that out of 1000?”
“No, you have type 1 diabetes, right then and there.”
I was terrified. I had no idea what type 1 diabetes was. Nobody in my family has ever had type 1. I had all these questions going through my head. “I’m supposed to be this professional athlete? How are you a professional athlete, when part of your body doesn’t work?” You know, all those things.
Then I also explained to him that I was supposed to go to Europe in about 5 days. They sent me home and got me started on insulin and met with a diabetic educator. Then we had a follow up meeting with my doctor and my parents. By then it was two days to my Europe trip. My health was my number one priority and I asked the doctor if it was a bad idea to go. He said it wasn’t his call to make. I looked at my dad and told him he needed to come with me to Europe. And we went and I won my first race a week later.
What a story. Is this when you heard about Team Novo Nordisk?
The day I got diagnosed, my mom Googled “Professional athletes living with type 1 diabetes.” My mom is not super tech savvy and I didn’t even know she was doing it. Phil Southerland and Team Novo Nordisk popped up. We started reading a bit of information about how you always have to have some sugar source with you. Since my mom knows how to sow, she sowed a little pocket that could hang from my hydration pack where I could put gummies in. As long as I have gummies, I can paddle, she figured.
Seeing professional athletes that have type 1 that have overcome challenges and the ups and downs that comes with competing with diabetes showed me I could make it happen.
After discovering the team, your mom said she cold emailed Phil?
Yeah, she basically thanked him for everything the team put out there, it was very inspirational for me to have all that information about how to manage diabetes and how your dreams can keep going as long as you take care of your diabetes. Phil responded and asked for my address. Two weeks later his book, “Not dead yet” arrived in the mail and that was very special. It was a touching start to my relationship with type 1.
How do you manage the condition with all the amount of travelling you do?
Adrenaline plays a big factor in type 1 and your blood sugar. When I’m out on the startline, that’s something I like to distinguish between race adrenaline or fatigue and having low sugar levels. I don’t always get it right. With experience over the years I’ve been able to feel the difference.
My mom has always told me to try to get into a routine but my life isn’t very much of a routine because I’m always in different countries, eating different food and sleeping in different time zones.
Once I got a Continuous Glucose Monitor, that helped me a lot. It was the first step to understanding how my blood sugar level responds to all my travels. The first thing I learnt from the get-go was that I need to have food with me wherever I am. If I wake up in the morning after landing late at night in a different country, I need to have some kind of breakfast with me to start my day as normally as possible. Having everything lined up and prepared ahead of time has been the best way for me to manage my diabetes and that would be my biggest suggestion to someone.
In addition to managing diabetes, you were also diagnosed with Celiac disease.
Yeah, I got diagnosed about a year after type 1. That for me isn’t as difficult as dealing with type 1. Celiac means I can’t eat wheat, barley, oats and rye. I’ve gotten a lot better about asking for gluten free options when I’m out to eat. It’s definitely difficult in countries where I don’t speak the language.
Do you get extra kudos from your competitors because you’ve got a few more hurdles to manage than they do?
I really appreciate when other competitors have asked me how type 1 diabetes works. Most of those questions have come from when I was first diagnosed but recently, I’ve been competing with a woman from Spain and it’s pretty much the two of us at the front of the races. This Spring she asked me how type 1 works. She was very impressed with me dealing with it and still being at the top of my game and I genuinely appreciated her curiosity.
All the competitors are drafting each other really closely and when I’m beeping, I’ve had it a few times in races where they would check if I was good. Even though we’re all competing for limited resources and prize money, it’s a tight-knit community.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One of the other things I have coming up is really exciting. The last few years I’ve been primarily focusing on stand up paddling but I am also shifting my focus quite a bit and going to be spending a lot of time in Windsurf iQFoiling. It’s a new Olympic class for Paris 2024 and it’s the first time that windsurf foiling is going to be in the Olympics.
I’m putting a lot of mind and heart into it and I’m hoping to qualify for the US team for 2024.