"As a cyclist, I’m not defined by diabetes. And I’m not just racing to raise awareness, I’m racing to win."
Ben Dilley who is one of seven children, grew up as an athlete in Lincoln, Nebraska playing basketball, his first passion. But it wasn’t until after his diabetes diagnosis that the 22-year-old started bike racing.
Of Dilley’s siblings, two others were also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, so when Dilley exhibited symptoms around age 14, he knew what they meant. Dilley, who had dreamed of attending the Air Force Academy and flying fighter jets since the age of 7, feared the diagnosis would crush this dream. When first diagnosed, Dilley lost his direction and hid his condition from everyone. It wasn’t until he discovered the team that his outlook improved. He reached out to Team Novo Nordisk CEO Phil Southerland who connected him with local riders, athletes who also had diabetes. Quickly, Dilley took that military drive and focused it on his training and racing.
Even before officially riding for the Team Novo Nordisk development team, Dilley wore the team’s kit to train. When he was finally invited to join the team, Dilley says he found the direction he desperately needed; now, he feels his life counts for so much more. For Dilley, it isn’t just about being a top-level cyclist; it is also about inspiring others and representing the millions of people with diabetes.
Off the bike, Dilley enjoys cooking, participating in other sports and anything outdoors.
Tell us about when you were diagnosed and how you found out?
Having two younger siblings who had been diagnosed with diabetes, I was all too familiar with the symptoms. I began noticing these symptoms of diabetes in January 2006.
I tried my best to hide them and deny the fact that they could mean something was wrong. My mom is a nurse and picked up on the symptoms. Then, in March 2006, my Dad came to me one evening and asked if he could check my blood sugar. I knew what was coming. The glucose meter read “HIGH”, meaning my blood glucose was over 500. There was no denying it now; I had type 1 diabetes.
What was your initial reaction?
I was pretty devastated. Ever since I could remember, I had wanted to enter the US Air Force and attend the USAF Academy. And I was well on my way to achieving my dream.
The diagnoses meant I would be disqualified from ever having the chance to enter the US Air Force. I felt hopeless after being diagnosed. I thought my dream was over.
How did your family/friends/fellow athletes react?
My family was very supportive and understanding. They understood the enormity of this new change in my life, but it was also something that I needed to accept, deal with and move forward.
Having two other siblings who were also dealing with the condition helped me to move forward with my new reality. However, no one outside my family knew of my diagnosis. For over a year, I told no one, not even my best friend. I didn’t want people to see me as different. I still wanted to be me. I was ashamed of the condition that now seemed to define me, so I hid the fact from everyone.
Did you think your days as an athlete were over? Did others? What did your doctor say?
Growing up, my parents had instilled in us character qualities such as hard work and determination. I knew I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from attempting to do what I wanted to do. I had always been active in sports, and my doctors never told me I couldn’t compete, there were now just a lot of rules and extra details I had to think about if I wanted to perform my best.
Tell us about how you got started in your sport.
I was at a routine appointment with my health care professional when everything changed for me. I heard about Phil Southerland and his team of athletes competing in Race Across America.
I was completely surprised when I heard that they were a team of cyclists that all had type 1 diabetes. I was so inspired as I watched them that year beat every other top professional team in the competition and break the world record for the event.
I had always enjoyed cycling, but it was in that moment where I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to take my cycling to the next level. I wanted to be a professional cyclist.
When did you start competing?
I started competing when I was about 17, racing for my collegiate cycling team.
When you first started competing, did you tell anyone (teammates/coaches/trainers) about your diabetes?
I didn’t make a point of telling people, but I never hid the fact that I had diabetes. My focus was racing as best I could, which meant I had to be also 100% focused on properly managing my diabetes.
How/when did you know cycling was something you wanted to do professionally?
From day one, I knew I wanted to pursue the sport as far as I could. I loved the aggressive nature of the sport and adrenalin-rush that came with racing. I was also attracted to the basic nature of the sport.
In a lot of ways, if you can suffer more then your opponent then you can win. It comes down to will power and who wants it most. My dream, from when I first heard of the team, was to be a professional cyclist, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from reaching that goal.
What do you think is your biggest achievement in your athletic career?
My biggest achievement in my athletic career so far is reaching the professional level. In only a very short period of time, I went from an amateur-level cyclist to signing a professional contract.
I’ve had incredible support from a lot of people and some amazing opportunities that led to where I am now. It is an opportunity I never take for granted and something I work incredibly hard each day to learn and improve.
What is your favorite memory from a race/competition?
The best feeling after a race is knowing you gave everything you had for the team. Cycling is most definitely a team sport and each one of us has a job to execute during the race. There is no better feeling for me then to know I did everything I could to help the team be successful. Being part of Team Novo Nordisk
How did you come to join Team Novo Nordisk?
When I first heard about Phil and his team from my health care professional, I immediately began to try and get in touch with him. After sending a few emails, I was finally able to connect with Phil and share my goal of one day racing as a pro.
He was gracious in his response, encouraging me to keep working hard, pursue racing with the Team Novo Nordisk Development team, and then continue to grow from there. He also sent me some team gear to race in when I competed locally.
I continued to keep in contact with Phil and the team, and in 2013, I joined the Team Novo Nordisk Development team and became a pro in 2014.
How has your life changed since you joined the team (both as an athlete and as a person)?
My life has changed tremendously since I became a part of the team. In 2013, I moved from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Alpharetta, Georgia, to train and race with my Development Team teammates.
The 2013 season was an incredible year of growth and learning as an athlete. I was able to receive great coaching and advice, which helped me tremendously as an athlete, and ultimately helped me to move from the Devo ranks to the Professional team.
For the 2014 season, I moved to Golden, Colorado, where I am currently living, and gained more valuable experience racing and training that I know will benefit me for years to come.
Aside from growing as an athlete, joining the team has allowed me to share my experience with others. This team inspired me and gave me hope and a new direction. Through Team Novo Nordisk, I’ve had the chance to do the same for others by spreading a message of inspiration and hope to people affected by diabetes around the world.
Off the bike (Other Interests)
How do you spend your time when you’re not training or racing? Any other passions?
I like to keep busy when I’m not training or racing. I love anything outdoors: hiking, camping, or fishing.
I have a lot of various interests and passions. I have always had a strong interest in aviation, and I hope to earn my pilot’s license some day.
I love coffee and cooking- maybe I’ll open a coffee shop/bakery someday- who knows.
What do you want to do when you retire?
Something big, and challenging, and that will make a difference in other peoples’ lives. But I’m not sure yet what that will be.
I want to do something that matters and that will truly make a difference. I do know I will never truly retire. I may retire from professional cycling, but I will never retire.
As long as I can keep dreaming (and drinking coffee), I’ll keep going!
What are the three most important things in your life?
I’d have to say it’s faith, family and friends.
My faith in God is very important to me and helps me stay focused on what really matters most. My relationship with God provides direction for my life, and I strive to do all things for His glory.
Since I’ve started racing professionally, I’ve realized just how important my family and friends are to me. I spend a lot of time on the road and away from home, so I’ve grown to value those relationships even more. They are what really matter in the long run.
Married? Kids? Pets?
Single, no kids, and no pets- although I do love all animals!