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Lara McSpadden on becoming a basketball superstar with type 1 diabetes

Basketball player LARA McSPADDEN has had an extraordinary career. The 25-year-old has played internationally for a decade, has helped Australia win world championships and continues to be a star performer for the Sydney Uni Flames. She’s an incredible example of not letting type 1 diabetes get in the way of your dreams.

I was diagnosed when I was seven, when I was in year three. One night, I went to the toilet a bunch of times and luckily, my mum was on the ball, because I had no idea what was going on. I had never really heard of diabetes before. There’s no history in my family or anything like that.

I was already quite sporty by then. I tried pretty much every sport and then, when I was 12, basketball was the one that stuck with me. My height obviously helps. I am six foot four, which is definitely taller than average.

By the time I was 15, I was playing for Australia in the under-17 World Championships. It’s pretty wild to think about that now. At the time, I just took every opportunity that I was given to help me develop in basketball.

Having type 1 can make things more difficult. When you’re playing overseas, and you have language barriers and you’re not familiar with the medical support systems like we have in Australia, it is something that you can stress about. But I don’t think it’s really got in the way of what I’ve been able to achieve on an international level.

I’ve just had the mindset that I would always have done this, regardless of whether I had diabetes or not.

Actually, I will say that I chose not to go to college in America and play college basketball when I was 17, partly because of my diabetes. For basketball players, the two pathways are either the leagues (WNBA or NBL) or college. But I felt, if something went wrong, I wanted to be close to home.

Managing your diabetes can make training more difficult. I do some things differently to the other girls. At training I don’t do as much before training – like the gym and the team training – just to conserve my energy for the main training. At games, I don’t do as much in the warm up just to make sure I have my energy for the game. But other than that, it’s just your standard stuff like checking before, during and after.

I have chats with my endocrinologist when she says, “I don’t know how you do it so well.” I guess I’ve just had the mindset that I would always have done this, regardless of whether I had diabetes or not.

There are some days where I’m like, “Far out, this is hard!” But on the whole I think I have a pretty good outlook. I think training can make managing my diabetes easier. It helps me stay fit. My insulin sensitivity is a lot better when I’m training.

I always think, what would happen if I didn’t have diabetes? I think I’d be a little bit of a couch potato. It’s not that I don’t let myself eat food that I want to eat, but it helps just having that voice in the back of your head to watch your levels.

Technology has really changed things. It’s unbelievable. The Dexcom G6 has been the biggest help, especially with the trending notifications that it gives me, letting me know if I’m going down, because I wouldn’t know with a tester. It can tell me I’m going down and that, in 10 minutes time, I won’t be able to play unless I eat now. That’s been super helpful, especially for my sport.

There aren’t a lot of sportspeople around with type 1. I’ve actually only met one other sportsperson who has type 1 diabetes, he used to play AFL and his name’s Jack Fitzpatrick. But I know Sarah Klau plays for (Netball team) the New South Wales Swifts. She has type 1.

It’s pretty cool to think I could be a role model for girls like me with type 1, having not really had that community to look to myself. I just want to be able to help people with what they’re dealing with. At one of the last games I played, a dad come up with his young daughter and she had the Dexcom on her leg. The dad was like, “Oh, we’re so happy to meet you, you’re my daughter’s favourite player, she has a Dexcom, can your show her your Dexcom?” It was just awesome. It makes you feel good.

I think attitudes are changing to women’s sport. The Matildas effect has been huge. We’re definitely getting more coverage and more recognition. I think there still could be more, but it’s long overdue. Our job to play sport and win games, but we’re also trying to show girls that this is legit. And you can do this too.

This article is an edited interview with Lara by Myke Bartlett.

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