As a kid, all Ryan Reed wanted to do was drive race cars. At the age of 4, his dad bought him his first go-kart, which he raced until his teens. From that time, he knew it would be much more than a hobby: He knew it was going to be his career, his passion and his dream.
In his mid-teens, Ryan raced miniature stock cars, and then full-stock race cars at the age of 15-16. It was when he turned 17, that his promising career as a professional race car driver came to a screeching halt. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and told by his doctor at the time that he would never race again.
Since his diagnosis, he has been pushing forward to test the boundaries and not let diabetes define him.
Today, Ryan is a two-time Daytona Xfinity Series champion. He competes full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 16 Ford Mustang for Roush Fenway Racing.
dLife is proud to bring you his inspiring story and how he fought all odds to chase his dreams in this exclusive interview.
Q: Tell me about your diagnosis.
A: I was in the process of moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, which was super exciting for me because it’s a hub for NASCAR. It was kind of like going away to college for the first time: I separated from my parents a little bit and was going to live on my own.
Come February, I was back in my hometown in Bakersfield, California, and I was really, really sick for about three months. I was losing a lot of weight; I was thirsty all the time; I was fatigued; I was irritable. I went to the doctor and they immediately checked my blood sugar. It was over 400 fasting. They confidently said I had diabetes and diagnosed me with Type 1 diabetes on the spot.
Q: What was your initial reaction?
A: I had already been racing for 13 of my 17 years being alive, so at that point, it was much more than a hobby. My first question was how was it going to affect my racing career.
The doctor was very one-sided about it and told me I was never going to race again and that I needed to focus on what he considered a “normal life.” That sent me into a spiral because a normal life for me was racing.
It was pursuing my dream, it was what I went to sleep thinking about, it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up. It was my whole life.
Q: What did you do after you were told you couldn’t race anymore?
A: It really put everything on hold for me. The first three months for anyone who is first diagnosed with diabetes, it’s like learning to live again. I did a ton of research and learned all the ins and outs of living with diabetes.
A: My parents were very supportive of me at that time with whatever path I chose to go down at that point. I started to do a lot of research on athletes with Type 1 diabetes, and there were so many amazing, inspirational stories of people doing such cool things with diabetes. For me, a 17-year-old kid, who didn’t know what was next, those stories really were important to me.
Q: What turned things around for you?
A: It was a doctor named Anne Peters, an endocrinologist in Southern California, who caught my eye because she worked with a lot of different athletes. After reaching out to her, she cleared a spot for me. From the moment I met her, she immediately turned things around for me. She told me she would get me back in the race provided I was willing to work with her.
I think back to that day a lot. That was the moment when I changed my perception of diabetes. It’s when I realized that diabetes is not going to control my life, but I’m going to control my diabetes.
Q: Is finding the right doctor important?
A: For sure, I think that’s very evident in my story, but also for anyone going through diabetes and who are not getting the answer they want. For me, I was told I wouldn’t be able to drive race cars and that answer was unacceptable to me. I was going to turn over every stone before I gave up. I might have gone to 100 other doctors — if I hadn’t gone to Anne, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today. I think finding the right doctor was everything. You can’t say enough about that.
Daytona Beach, FL – Feb 20, 2015: Ryan Reed (16) celebrates his first win, winning the Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway.
Q: What’s your biggest accomplishment?
A: Hands down my biggest accomplishments are my two Daytona wins in the Xfinity Series — those were monumental for me — on a professional level but also on a personal level because it achieved what I dreamt about since I was a kid. After being diagnosed, those wins meant so much more to me because I overcame the odds and won one of the highest levels in motorsports.
Q: What inspires you to keep pushing?
A: I’ve met a ton a people with diabetes over the years and developed a lot of relationships with a number of people, kids, and adults of all ages. To see what that win meant to so many people was inspirational and that’s my motivation day in and day out now.
I have an opportunity to be a champion to those people and win and do what I love to do at the same time. That’s one of the greatest opportunities I have — the trophies are cool, but the connection I’ve shared with a lot of folks means so much more to me.
Q: What special things do you do to manage diabetes while racing?
A: I use a Dexcom and that’s definitely a key part about being able to complete and race with diabetes. I mount the receiver on my dash and so I’m able to see fluctuations throughout the race. That’s crucial. From there, I have the information and have to know what to do with it:
If my blood sugars are too low, I have a drink inside the car, that’s high in sugar, carbohydrates, and protein to help treat or prevent a low blood sugar. If my blood sugar is too high, there’s a guy in my pit-crew who’s trained to give me an insulin injection. Fortunately, we’ve never had to do that. It’s more a safety precaution, but regardless we try to have all the ‘what-if’s’ taken care of in case they come up.
Q: How do you stay focused when you are racing?
A: For me, diabetes is just something that I have — and it’s always going to be there — I’m always thinking about my blood sugar and what it’s doing. It’s like asking when I sit down and have a meal, does having diabetes distract me from eating? No, I’m hungry and still want to eat — it’s just that I also know that I have to take care of my diabetes. And it’s the same thing for driving a race car. I’m so focused on doing the best I can and doing everything I can do to win that race.
Q: Is there a stigma that surrounds young people with Type 1 diabetes?
A: I think diabetes can be a stigma and something people don’t want to talk about, but for me, I try to eliminate those stigmas.
Being a teenager and diagnosed with diabetes is challenging for anyone: You’re in high school and transitioning to college, and there’s a lot of new things going on in your life.
For me, being diagnosed was definitely one more thing on top of everything I was going through. But, I was just so focused on getting back in the race car and I did whatever it took.
As I heard more stories of kids with diabetes, I really tried to use the racing platform to share my story with everyone and talk about diabetes to normalize it as best I can. Hopefully, kids at home will watch and realize they have nothing to be ashamed of.
I get to encourage people with diabetes not just away from the race track but on the race track as well. Thanks to Lilly Diabetes, we have our message to DriveDownA1C all over our Ford Mustang every single weekend.
Q: What’s your role as an ambassador for Beyond Type 1?
A: As an ambassador, I work on various projects with Beyond Type 1 to increase awareness. They have a different perspective on things, which a lot of other organizations don’t have. As a younger guy, and as an athlete, I really appreciate what they are doing. For me, it’s been helping them spread awareness and also share my story through their platform to continue to reach more people with it.
Q: What is your message to others?
A: We all have things in life that are important to us; those things you love to do and are passionate about in life, it’s important to find inspiration and encouragement in those things. I’d say push through the bad days and manage diabetes because it’s not easy and certainly frustrating.
I was at the gym this morning and in the middle of my workout, I had a low to deal with and it’s certainly frustrating. What motivates me to treat my low and then get back at it and keep going is just the passion and the love for what I do on the race track.
Being able to chase my dreams makes all those frustrating times worth it. I want to take care of myself for my loved ones and also for my love of racing.
Q: How do you travel with diabetes?
A: When you have diabetes, it makes traveling even more challenging, just make sure you’re always planned ahead and make sure you have extra supplies.
And, being sick with diabetes is a disaster, so for me, taking care of myself, going to the gym, getting plenty of sleep, making sure I’m taking vitamins, doing everything to make sure I’m healthy is really important.
Diabetes is a disease where you’re checking your blood sugar, taking your insulin and dealing with lows and highs. It’s all the same stuff. It might be under different conditions: I may be going 200 miles per hour in a race car, but it’s still the same challenges personally or professionally.
I try to take on each of those challenges head-on. I try not to think about them as a whole of diabetes. I try to take it day by day and that’s all I can do. I can only control what I can control — do that and go from there.
Q: How do you manage your diet?
A: The nutrition side of things has been really interesting since I was diagnosed. First, I learned about counting carbs and then once I started to feel better, I wanted to learn more. I try to elevate everything I do when I’m away from the racetrack, so I feel better when I am on the racetrack.
I have tried so many different diets and worked with so many nutritionists. After trying it all, what’s important to me is lean proteins, organic and very clean food and I eat a lot of locally-sourced stuff.
It’s hard to eat clean when I’m on the road, but I try to have fun with it. I’ll order something off the menu and change five times until it’s something completely different from what it originally was.
I know the things that are good for me and bad for me. We are all human and we all want things. I need a day when I can just eat pizza and hang out with my buddies and not deprive myself. And day in and day out, when I am eating clean, I don’t feel deprived.
No one should deprive themselves of something they really want because life is all about balance. I’m such a big fan of living a balanced life and it’s what allowed me to be dedicated at the moment and be passionate about what I love to do and not get burned out to the point where I start cutting corners.
Q: Advice to young people:
A: Don’t let diabetes mentally defeat you. You are going to have days when your blood sugar is all over the place, you’re doing everything right, but it’s just not your day. You can’t let those days bring you down, you have to stay positive and get through those days. You have to look for better days ahead.
Also, work with your doctor; they are very thorough people, especially if you’ve found the right doctor. It will really help you and make your life easier. The quality of your life is well managed when your diabetes is controlled. I encourage everyone to work with their doctor and to stay positive and work hard for the things they love and for the things they want to do.
Q: Can someone with diabetes lead a full life?
A: Absolutely. For me, my dream was to drive in motorsports highest level, and I’ve been able to do that and go super fast in a race car every weekend. If I’ve been able to do that, there’s a lot of doors open for anyone else.
Lastly, take control of your diabetes. Don’t let it control you. There are certainly days when I feel like my diabetes controls me, but I wake up the next day and tell myself I’m not going to let it control me.
I think encouragement is the biggest thing. Look, here’s my story and don’t give up on your dreams. Work hard and don’t give up. Manage your diabetes, go out there and kick butt.
All images courtesy of Shutterstock.