Diabetes Doesn’t Limit You
Three times Stand Up Paddle World Champion Fiona Wylde joined the Team Novo Nordisk ambassador program in 2022. The 26-year-old American is widely recognized as one of the world’s best “waterwomen” and has won titles in SUP, Windsurf Wave Sailing and is an accomplished Wing Foil competitor.
An only child who grew up in a close family in what she describes as a “unique childhood” divided between two countries due to her parent’s work. Spending time in both Hood River, Oregon USA and Los Barriles, Mexico. Her parents’ seasonal work in the Marine Canvas industry introduced Wylde to the water and her lifelong love affair began.
Wylde started out watching her parents windsurf and was soon being pushed around the shallows on a board. Moving quickly into competitive Windsurf Racing at ten years-old and into SUP at age 14 and winning her first race only two years later.
Everyone who lives with diabetes remembers their day of diagnosis and for Wylde there is additional significance. Diagnosed on the day of her High School graduation, Wylde was 18-years-old and preparing for life as a professional athlete, but had been experiencing weight loss, tiredness and fatigue and after a course of antibiotics didn’t deal with a routine infection and left Wylde still feeling weak, she returned to the doctor.
Recognising the symptoms Wyldes doctor ran the appropriate tests and discovered right there and then that Wylde had type 1 diabetes. She is the only person in her family with type 1 diabetes and after the initial diagnosis sunk in, Wylde pushed on with pursuing her dreams and only five days later Wylde traveled to Europe and won her first SUP race on the European Tour.
An online search brought Wylde into contact with Team Novo Nordisk CEO & Co-Founder Phil Southerland who encouraged her to not let diabetes hold her back and gave advice on resources for diabetes management. A few years later, Wylde is a multiple world champion and still out on the water competing.
Out of competition Wylde enjoys spending time with her partner and pet Husky named “Sharky”, she can’t stay out of the water for long, but loves mountain biking and has recently started a non-profit initiative to help train and educate aspiring SUP, Windsurf and Wing Foil athletes.
1) Tell us a bit about your family. Brothers? Sisters? Older/Younger?
I am am only child. I’ve grown up in a very small, but very close family. Most of my family lives within 30 miles of each other and we very much enjoy all the time we have together.
2) What was your childhood like?
My childhood was unique because I grew up in two different countries. My parents have a seasonal business doing marine canvas work, so they were able to build our lifestyle to accommodate living in Mexico for three months every year. In doing so, I grew up going to the local schools in both Hood River and Los Barriles, Mexico, speaking two language and learning two different cultures. It was an absolutely incredible childhood, and I am still very close with my childhood-friends today.
My parents love the water and that passion got transferred to me. I grew up watching my parents windsurf, and as soon as I was able to swim, they put me on a board and sailed me around. I fell in love with the water. As I grew up, I was introduced to different types of windsurfing and stand up paddling. Every sport on the water thrilled me and motivated me to learn more. Over the past ten years, I have turned my passion into my profession. I have competed professionally in both Stand Up Paddling and Windsurfing since I was 16 years old.
3) Do either of your parents or anyone else in your family have diabetes?
Nobody in my family has Type 1 Diabetes.
1) Tell us about when you were diagnosed and how you found out?
I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes on my High School Graduation Day in May of 2015. I was 18 years old. As long as I remember, my dream was to become a professional athlete. I was attending online high school so I could have the flexibility to travel and pursue my dreams. I had an agreement with my family that I wouldn’t look for full-time sponsorships until I graduated high school. Well, a strong sting of successful events results when I was 17 landed me with my dream contract before my 18th birthday. Even though I still had 6 months left of High School, I couldn’t say no to this opportunity. I signed the contract with Starboard SUP and was so excited to race internationally for the biggest brand worldwide in Stand Up Paddling. This was my dream- to have the opportunity to travel the world, race, and be supported as a professional athlete chasing my dreams.
I came out of the gates flying at the first race of the season. It’s a brutal long and challenging race, but I was doing so well, sitting 2nd. In the last mile of the race, I went from 2nd to 6th. I was disappointed, but chalked it up to experience and started looking at the next race. But, I didn’t recover. I lost weight I couldn’t gain back. Was mentally and physically exhausted. The first race was April. I still had 6 weeks left of High School and was grinding to finish. I got an infection, went to the doctors and they gave me antibiotics to fight the infection. I pushed through, but I wasn’t getting stronger. I tried to rest and just felt more tired. I wanted to go back to the doctors and the only appointment I could get was for the afternoon of my graduation day. I finished classes in the morning and went to the doctor in the afternoon.
I explained my symptoms and my doctor took one look at me and asked, “Has you ever checked your blood sugar?”. I never had. He pricked my finger and the meter said 586. I knew nothing about diabetes, so said, “That’s great right?! 1000 is good, isn’t it!”
You can imagine how the doctor looked at me after I said that. He told me right there and then that I had Type 1 Diabetes.
Here’s the link to the full story I wrote right after my diagnosis: http://www.supracer.com/fiona-wylde-my-diagnosis/
2) What was your initial reaction?
To be honest, I didn’t know what to think, or to feel. I felt physically awful, so I focused on the idea that as soon as I learned how to inject insulin, I would feel better. When I got home from the doctors, and after a few tears, the first thing my mom did was google ‘professional athletes with type 1 diabetes.’ I loved all of the opportunities I was having, I was living my dream! My body is my tool as a professional athlete, and even though I was just told my body didn’t work properly, my passion was bigger than a faulty pancreas. I knew if there was a will, there was a way.
From my mom’s google search, a professional cycling team all with Type 1 Diabetes, popped up. I’d never heard of such a thing and we got hope. My mom sent a cold-call email to Phil Southerland’s email that was listed on the website. To our complete surprise, he responded offering words of encouragement and pointed us towards many resources we could use to learn about Type 1.
I wasn’t ready to give up on my career that had started only a few months prior. Five days after I was diagnosed, I was scheduled to fly to Europe to race in my First European Tour for Stand Up Paddling. We went back to my doctor and I look at him and asked, “ My health comes first. If this is a bad idea for me to go to Europe and race right now, I won’t go.” My doctor just looked at me and said, “You know your body, I can’t tell you what you can and cannot do. If you think you can handle it, you should most definitely go.” I was so excited, I looked at my dad and said, “Im going! And you’re coming with me!”
So, off to Europe we went. We traveled with so many snack and food to make sure that I had something ready and accessible to eat at all times. I was still learning how to give shots and what to do if I was low or high and how to treat it. But for me, getting on the plane and continuing to follow my dream was the best thing I could have done right after my diagnosis.
I won the first race in Europe 5 days after being diagnosed. :)
3) How did your family/friends/fellow athletes react?
My family was upset to hear that I would have something like diabetes that I would have to deal with for potentially the rest of my life. They were frustrated because they couldn’t do anything to ‘fix’ it. And more than anything, I think they were saddened to watch me struggle when the times were hard.
But, my family wanted to be positive. They learned about managing Type 1 Diabetes just like I did. I had to learn how to explain type 1 to friends or colleagues so they knew how to read if I was doing alright, or if I might need help. I would always keep things to myself, but when I was diagnosed with Type 1, I had to learn how to share it with other people, for safety reasons. I had to learn to tell race directors and people I was traveling with what Type 1 Diabetes is, what I act/look like when I am low or high, and what they need to do if I have an emergency situation.
It changed many parts of my traveling because now I had to be so much more prepared. I couldn’t just fly off to a remote destination with a day or two’s notice. Now, I had to plan my supplies, bring extra supplies, make sure I knew I could get food and have food with me at all times. A lot of things changed, but my passion stayed the same. I loved what I was doing, so I made systems so I could continue my career with Type 1 Diabetes.
4) For those diagnosed after they started cycling: What was it like riding with diabetes and how did you adjust?
For me, the biggest changes came on the water. Even though I started racing right away, It took me a long time to learn what it felt like to be high or low and to recognize what to do in certain locations. I had to listen very carefully to my body to make sure I stayed safe. I still do every moment of every day. But those first few months with T1D, I learned to how paddle and eat at the same time to adjust my sugar levels. I learned how to always carry glucose with me and have access to my supplies (insulin, meter then later CGM) while on the water. These are ‘systems’ I had to create to make paddling safe with Type 1 Diabetes.
A lot of times when I paddle, I am a long ways off shore. This means that I have to be entirely self-sufficient with my T1D management. It took time to figure out my systems for management while on the water, but I didn’t give up.
1) Tell us about how you got started in cycling
Like I mentioned earlier, I grew up on the water. I started windsurfing from a young age. I started Windsurf Racing at 10 years old and Windsurf Wave Sailing at 12 years old.
At 14 years old, I was invited by Steve Gates, the founder of Big Winds, the local watersports shop in hood River, Oregon to join the newly formed Stand Up Paddle JET- Junior Elite Team. Thanks to Steve, I was introduced to paddling and fell in love with it. I started competing in local races around the PNW, then the following year competed in a few across the country.
When I was 16, I raced in the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, a world cup level race in my home town of Hood River. To everyones surprise, including my own, I won the event. I was only 16 and beat women 10 years my senior. This was the moment I realized I was good at paddling and it jump started my career.
2) What do you think is your biggest achievement in your athletic career?
In my athletic career I have won a Youth World Title in Windsurf Wave Sailing, Three Stand Up Paddle World Titles and two European Championship Tour titles. I am very proud of my achievements and to have done all of this with Type 1 Diabetes.
3) What is your favorite memory from a race/competition?
In 2021, I won two world titles at the ICF World Championships in Hungary. I won the Technical Race World Title and the Distance Race World Title. For me, winning the Distance race was the most incredible accomplishment. Just three years ago, people would have shrugged me off the shoulder, as definitely a top three contender, but very unlikely #1 finisher. I’ve worked so hard to improve my distance racing. During the World Championship Distance Race, it felt like all of my racing experience came together in one race. I wanted that world title so badly, I didn’t give up for a second. I made a gap in the first 500meters of the race, and held it for the entire 18km. For reference, that 18km race took 2hr5min to compete.
Two days after I won the 2021 Distance World Title, I won the 2021 Technical World Title. It was truly too incredible for words.
Being part of Team Novo Nordisk
1) How has your life changed since you joined the team (both as an athlete and as a person)?
For me, joining TNN officially as an ambassador is a huge accomplishment. I have looked up to the TNN team since the moment I was dignosed. I didn’t think it was possible to officially be part of the team since I am not a cyclist. However, I so appreciate the recognition that TNN sees in my accomplishments as a water athlete with Type 1 Diabetes. I cant express my gratitude enough for the support TNN has already shown me in the short time I’ve been on the team. Thank you!
1) How do you spend your time when you’re not training or racing? Any other passions?
Lots and lots of time on the water in all sports! Paddling, Wing Foiling, windsurfing, sailing! And… surprise surprise, I even like to bike! I love road riding for training and mountain biking for exploring the hills around my home.
2) What are the three most important things in your life?
Health, Family, and respect.
3) Married? Kids? Pets?
I am not married, but I have a wonderful and healthy relationship. I have a very energetic husky-mix dog named Sharky.
4) What is your biggest accomplishment off the bike (outside of cycling)?
My biggest accomplishment is unfolding every moment we speak. I have just launched a non-profit called Wylde Wind & Water aimed to continue the legacy of the late Steve Gates and what he started with the SUP JET Team that I learned to paddle on. Wylde Wind & Water is expanding on these programs to include Wing foiling with the biggest focus on water safety and water safety education.
You can read about Wylde Wind & Water here: www.fionawylde.com/wyldewindandwaterprograms
1) What is your best advice for a young athlete with diabetes?
My biggest piece of advice for a young athlete with Type 1, is to learn to listen to your body. If you’re in tune with your body, you’ll be able to have a much stronger grasp on your T1D management. Additionally, plan ahead! I can’t emphasize it enough. Make sure you have all of your necessary supplies, plus extra, for wherever the day may take you.
2) How do you stay motivated when training and racing?
I am constantly seeing goals. Both big and small to work toward what I really want to achieve.
3) Is there a motto, mantra or principle in life that you live by?