We’ve talked to all sorts of athletes over the years, from skiers to swimmers to football players. But today, we are introducing our first-ever BMX racer! Matt Neal is 30 years old and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just a few years ago at age 28. Despite his fairly recent diagnosis, Matt isn’t letting diabetes slow him down. For those who are as unfamiliar with the sport as we are, BMX is short for “bicycle motocross” and it’s a form of extreme bicycle riding involving off-road racing on an obstacle course, complete with sharp turns and dangerous hills. Not for the faint of heart!
Matt has been BMX racing since he was a kid and he’s continuing to pursue his passion as a competitive athlete in Mesa, AZ. He recently founded Team Type 1 BMX, which as of now is an “unofficial” part of Team Type 1. That means they use the Team Type 1 logo and name, but Team Type 1 as an organization does not manage the BMX team. They plan to become more formally merged next year.
We chatted with Matt about the literal and figurative ups and downs of living with diabetes while BMX racing:
DM) How did you get into BMX racing?
MN) I have been very active my entire life. I always enjoyed being outside and playing sports when I was a kid. I went to school with a few kids that raced BMX and I enjoyed riding with them after school. I kept bugging my parents to let me start racing with them. Finally, my dad took me out to the BMX track for my 10th birthday. I was hooked! I loved racing and started taking it more seriously after a couple of years.
I was very fortunate to be able to travel around the country racing different events. I was even more fortunate to experience a great deal of success in the sport that I loved. I was top 10 nationally in my age group for several years and I even got second place at the BMX World Cup when I was 18. I turned pro for a few races at the end of my career before hanging my bike up to finish my degree.
What happened when diabetes entered the picture?
Fast forward about eight or nine years and I got the itch to get back on my bike. I started riding again and went to a couple of national events. I was riding decently for not racing for so long but I was a little off. I didn’t feel like I had the power that I should and I started losing weight. A LOT of weight. I couldn’t gain a pound to save my life, and I knew something was wrong.
I completed a health screening at work and my fasting blood glucose was 358 — and my fears were confirmed. I had diabetes. I was officially diagnosed February 20, 2009, with type 1 at the age of 28. Believe it or not, I felt very fortunate to have a manageable disease. I took some time off of my bike again to get a handle on my blood glucose, and I knew I wanted to race again. So that’s exactly what I did! I started racing at the beginning of the 2010 season.
When did the idea for diabetic BMX team come into play?
When I was diagnosed I knew I wanted to turn my diagnosis into something positive. BMX has been such a big part of my life and I thought I could use the sport to inspire others living with diabetes as well as help educate others about the disease. So I decided to start a team. At first, it was myself and three friends who I grew up racing with.
I was at a national race in Tucson, AZ in August of last year having dinner with my wife. I was wearing a DESA shirt that said “I run on insulin” on the back. A girl approached me as we waited for our food and asked if I had diabetes. I told her I did and she said her brother did as well. I went to their table and met Owen. He was 11 years old at the time and was racing BMX with type 1 diabetes, just like me. I chatted with Owen and his mom and explained what I was doing with the team for the 2011 season. They were very interested and we exchanged information.
This is basically how the team has grown. Someone sees one of the riders wearing our gear and asks about the team or sees an article in a magazine or newspaper and contacts me. It has been amazing! We literally grew from five riders, two with type 1 to 11 riders, eight with type 1, and the season isn’t even over yet!
How did you hook up with Team Type 1?
I met Phil Southerland, founder and CEO of Team Type 1, at the Tour of California last summer. I explained what I was doing and expressed my interest in being part of his organization. I figured that Team Type 1′s mission and mine were nearly identical, so it was a good fit. At the same time, BMX is very different from road racing. BMX is more of an extreme sport and caters to a younger, more family-oriented crowd. Phil was interested in getting his organization involved in BMX but didn’t have the funding available to fully support us. As a result, we have been self-funded this year and have our own group of sponsors who have helped us out: Diabetes America, OmniPod, Fly Racing, Adventure Bicycles, JDRF, and Integrated Diabetes Services.
Going back to your “late” diagnosis at age 28, how did you actually handle the transition from a ‘carefree life’ to a life with diabetes?
I’m still a bit of a newbie! The transition was probably less frightening for me because of my background. My degree is in exercise science so I already knew what a pancreas is, what insulin does, what a carbohydrate is, etc. For me it was simply a matter of figuring out how everything worked for me and my lifestyle. I am thankful I already knew some of the basics before I was diagnosed because it definitely made things easier.
Weren’t you nervous that diabetes would impact your racing success?
Diabetes has not impacted my performance at all. I won the second national event that I raced after being diagnosed. I’ve placed top 3 in every national main event this year with the exception of a few crashes. The main difference now is my pre-race preparation. Before, I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to before a race. Now I am constantly thinking about how much insulin I have on board, approximately how long until my next race, etc. so I can be at close to my target as possible.
But surely diabetes impacts BMX riding in some ways… How do you deal diabetes when competing?
Diabetes does add a whole new challenge to racing BMX. I test my glucose levels a LOT on race days. National races are especially difficult because you don’t know exactly when you are going to race and the races take place all weekend long. They are also challenging because my adrenaline tends to raise my BG levels. My target level for race time is 150 mg/dL so I always keep my meter, insulin, and carbs close by.
The main thing I try to do to optimize my blood glucose at races is to make small adjustments. I try to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day to avoid having big spikes or glucose crashes. It also helps so I don’t have a really full stomach when I need to race. I tend to have a few extra carbs at breakfast to bring my levels up. If I have a tougher race coming up and I know my adrenaline will be kicking in, I will try to get my blood glucose up to about 120 mg/dL because I know that adrenaline will take it up even higher while I’m warming up. If I know that I have a while before I race I will take a small correction to bring my levels back down to 100 mg/dL and then eat something to pick me back up when my next event gets closer.
After the race day is over, I try to have a few extra carbs at dinner to replenish/refuel and make a small correction to bring my levels back down. I make sure not to over-correct because I tend to run lower the day after, as my body is recovering and using up more glucose.
Do you use a pump or CGM to manage your diabetes?
I use the Dexcom CGM system and OmniPod to manage my glucose levels. It is awesome to have the extra data from the CGM to look at trends. It helps me to keep my levels stable all weekend long and makes it easier for me to be close to my target before all of my events. The OmniPod really helps me fine tune my BG all weekend long and makes it quick and easy to make any adjustments. I am currently the only rider on the team using the OmniPod, although Owen, our 12-year-old, is getting one soon. A couple others are using the Medtronic pump/CGM.
BMX is such a wild sport. Have you or the others had any problems with pumps coming off while riding?
To my knowledge, none of us have had any trouble with the pump coming off during a race. I personally choose to use the OmniPod system so I can place it on different parts of my body when I ride. I usually have it on the back of my arm when I race so there is a smaller chance I will fall on it if I crash. I can share that I’ve had some pretty crazy crashes and the pump was still attached and working fine when I got up!
What message would you like to convey to our readers? Especially those who might be afraid to do something because of their diabetes?
I always say don’t let diabetes stop you from doing anything. Diabetes doesn’t have to hold you back or slow you down. If there is something that you want to do, go for it!
Matt will racing the Black Jack Nationals in Reno, NV, Sept. 2-4, while the majority of the Team Type 1 BMX team will be at the US Open Nationals Sept. 30- Oct. 2. If you can’t make it out to cheer on the team in person, check out this awesome video of Matt riding BMX!