Ironman triathlete Gretchen O’Dea, who has Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), held an interactive presentation and discussion on life as a diabetic athlete on Saturday afternoon in Sloan Auditorium. The event was hosted by the College Diabetes Network, and it attracted a crowd of about 30 students, teens and adults.

O’Dea, a 36-year-old resident of Canandaigua, New York, completed the Ironman Triathlon – a 17-hour race consisting of a 2.4 mile open-water swim, a 112- mile bike ride, and a marathon- last August in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada. She finished with a time of 13 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

O’Dea was inspired to participate again after a friend encouraged her to register for a triathlon in 2012 and she came in second place. She began registering for races with increasing frequency, including various triathlons and half Ironmans, placing first in her age group in one of them.

“I’ve always been the type of person that if given the opportunity to ride 20 miles or 60 miles or 100, I’m not going to skip out and do 40; I’m going to do the hardest thing there is,” O’Dea said. “I would call myself a recreational athlete, and I would never have thought I would get out there and race.”

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, O’Dea was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 12, becoming the third of her three sisters to be diagnosed. According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, T1D is “an autoimmune disease in which a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables people to get energy from food, [and occurs] when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas” and affects approximately three million Americans.

“My parents always taught us we could do whatever we wanted to do, we just had to take care of ourselves,” O’Dea said. “They taught us to be independent with our diabetes, to not use it as an excuse. It’s not all bad: it’s given me mental toughness and empathy for other people.

“What she has accomplished is so impressive, and with diabetes it is especially difficult,” junior and President of the College Diabetes Network Mary Bucklin said. “I think that seeing someone like her who has diabetes was definitely inspiring not only to diabetics, but to everyone.” She added, “Being active in general is something that helps people with [all types of ] diabetes, and it is definitely something that needs to be focused on.”

“You don’t really have to be all that good, you just have to be persistent,” O’Dea said. “Don’t be afraid, just be prepared.” This idea, which was repeated numerous times throughout the presentation, exemplifies O’Dea’s attitude towards racing.

O’Dea emphasized how important it is for diabetics to always have enough sugars and carbs available when racing – in the form of liquids, such as Gatorade, or solids, such as energy gels – in order to avoid “lows,” or low blood sugar, that could be potentially dangerous if unmonitored. “Pockets are a diabetics best friend,” she said. “I won’t buy something without pockets.”

At the front of the room, O’Dea displayed a collection of her “diabetic’s running essentials,” including a medical equipment such as a tester, meter, and insulin pump; awards such as her “First Place Brick” from her half-Ironman; hydration pack; gel packets, and running jersey – equipped with even more pockets.

The presentation, co- sponsored by the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), MERT, and the Charles Drew Pre-Health Society, concluded with a casual question-and- answer session in which O’Dea gave advice on exercise regimens, pump technologies, family relations, and how to regulate blood sugar levels following various activities.

“I am a regular person, completely average,” she said. “I just work really hard and a lot of times, that’s just all it takes.”

O’Dea is currently training for her second Ironman, which will take place at Lake Placid in late July.

Douglas is a member of the class of 2017. 

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