Matt Allen with his family
Matt Allen is a 15 year old stock car racer, snowboarder, football player, straight A student and diabetic. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in July 2006, but he hasn’t let that slow him down.
Matt has been racing go-karts for more than half his life through the NRKA (Northern Regional Karting Association) and has been making his way through the ranks. In the first five years of his racing career he progressed from Kiddie Karts (ages 6-8) to Rookie Karts (ages 8-12). He won many races and consistently placed in the top three.
In 2011, Matt advanced to World Formula Junior karts (ages 12-15). He won the NRKA World Formula Junior season championship in flying fashion, finishing first place in 9 out the 16 races. In 2012, Matt defended his title and won the championship again, this time winning 10 out of the 16 races. He has been recognized as the NRKA Driver of the year in 2012. Last season, along with racing my go-kart, he took the next step in racing and began racing a Legend stock car.
Recently Alissa interviewed Matt Allen about his life, diabetes, and budding racing career.
Alissa: Tell me about your early years, before you were diagnosed with diabetes at the age of six?
Matt: I was snowboarding at age five and right before I was diagnosed I started racing. I was actually diagnosed while on vacation with my family. The doctors told me that having diabetes would not stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. I totally believed them!
Alissa: What kind of sports do you enjoy? How did you decide which ones to pursue?
Matt: I snowboard, competing at a National level, as well as race stock cars and play football for my high school. My dad tried to introduce me to skiing when I was young, but it was not exciting enough for me. So, we learned to snowboard together instead. Now my whole family snowboards, often going on vacation together. As for football, all my friends started to play and I wanted to be a part of a team sport.
Alissa: I admire you for being able to involve yourself and your family in snowboarding. Once you were diagnosed, how did you feel about continuing in sports?
Matt: I was so young that I didn’t grasp that it could change anything about me. I never really thought about changing my lifestyle. My parents also helped me deal with my diabetes.
Alissa: How did you manage your diabetes at the same time handling sports and school?
Matt: I had a lot of help in the early years from the nurses at school. As I've grown older, I manage it myself. While participating in sports I’m very diligent, checking my blood sugar, making sure I'm in range - not too low, not too high. My CGM monitor actually makes it a lot easier.
Alissa: I also noticed that you're a straight A student and you have a very high GPA. How are you able to pursue you academic studies and such an advanced level in addition to managing your sports and school with your diabetes?
Matt: My dad has always assured that school was a priority. I wasn’t allowed to do anything unless I did well academically.
Alissa: Is it hard to manage school and sports all at once? What would you say your biggest challenges are?
Matt: Sometimes assignments are missed when I travel around the country to race or snowboard. That is the most difficult part. However, I always catch up by the end of the semester.
Alissa: You mentioned that you were diagnosed at six years old. Because I'm trying to provide helpful advice to other diabetics, can you tell me more about your symptoms and how were you diagnosed?
Matt: I was very thirsty and had to go to the bathroom often. I was easily aggravated and tired all the time plus I lost a lot of weight. At one point, I drank a whole gallon of orange juice in less than one hour – and then went to the bathroom three or four times after. While we are on vacation in Cape Code my symptoms worsened. My parents took me to a doctor who advised that I was probably diabetic. From there we went to the Cape Cod Hospital, where my diagnosis was confirmed. Unfortunately, that hospital couldn’t treat me so I was transferred and admitted to another for two or three nights.
Alissa: How did your parents and family handle it emotionally? Did you have any emotional struggles at that young age?
Matt: It was definitely hard on my mom. My dad didn't struggle visibly, but I'm sure it was hard for him. I was so young that I didn't really know what diabetes meant. I just knew that I felt sick and that I felt better when I went to the hospital.
Alissa: Does diabetes run in your family? "
Matt: Not on my mom's side. I am not sure of the medical history on my dad's side, but I don't think so.
Alissa: How often do you see your endocrinologist and what kind of diabetic regimen are you currently on?
Matt: I am on the pump, which helps a lot. I see my doctor every three months to go over my A1C levels – the graph of where my blood sugar and the changes required for my pump settings.
Alissa: Who is your endocrinologist, where is he/she located and does he/she have experience working with other athletes?
Matt: My endocrinologist is Dr. Criego in St. Louis Park , Minnesota. She has definitely helped us manage my diabetes and my sports.
Alissa: How did you find an endocrinologist that you felt comfortable seeing?
Matt: My mom’s friend whose son is also diabetic recommended Dr. Criego. The doctor helps me so much so I can manage my diabetes while being active in sports and traveling.
Alissa: You mentioned that you were on a CGM. Are you also on a pump? How long have you been on a CGM and which one do you use?
Matt: I'm on the electronic pump and the Dexcom CGM, which I started to use about four months ago. I need to know what my blood sugar is every 20 minutes so the CGM is very helpful. Ryan (Reed) used it in his racecars so he could know his blood sugar at all times as well.
Alissa: As a fitness competitor, I agree. I’ve ordered the Dexcom, am going through training and will be starting it soon. Every athlete I've spoken with has said how beneficial a CGM is for managing diabetes while doing a sport. Even my doctors have been encouraging me to go on it, so it’s great to hear about your experience with it. My next question is, how did you adjust your diet? What is your diet like?
Matt: I've never really changed my diet or thought I needed to stay away from something because I am diabetic. I've tried to eat the way I always have, but I admit that diabetes definitely brings awareness to what you're eating.
Alissa: My daughter is a diabetic in middle school and I know there must be many challenges as a high school student who has diabetes. There are so many parties, events and holidays revolving around food. Do you follow a strict regimen or do pretty much eat what any non-diabetic eats? If so, what would be a typical meal for you at a party?
Matt: I don't follow a strict regimen and tend to eat like a non-diabetic. However, at parties and events I try to not eat sweets because even if I give my correct insulin dosage, my blood sugar can still be high. When my blood sugar is high, I don’t enjoy the party. I usually eat pizza and drink diet soda, but not much else.
Alissa: I know when my daughter goes to parties, she is used to, like you, not having sweets and has been really good about it. But any time we have a party or take her some place, we always know what she is going to eat and carb count in advance. Do you do that also?
Matt: I have an app on my phone that tells me carbs for pizza and different types of food. For the most part, I have a very good idea of how many carbs are in a pizza per say.
Alissa: Which carb-counting app do you use?
Matt: It's called Carb Control or Carb Count. It works really well.
Alissa: What do you do when you have low blood sugar while racing? How can you prevent low blood sugar? Do you have a special racecar that is equipped for it? I know with your CGM it's helpful, but how is your racecar equipped?
Matt: I carry a sports drink, like a Gatorade or something sugary in my car with a long tube, which I can drink if I go low. Fortunately, I've been very careful about watching it and have never gone low in a race.
Alissa: Was Ryan (Reed) helpful with the design of your race car?
Matt: I feel like I wouldn't be on CGM right now if it weren’t for Ryan. He also told me about carrying a sports drink.
Alissa: Has he been a good mentor to you?
Matt: Yes!, Absolutely!
Alissa: I’ve heard that you're fundraising for Ryan Reed’s charity ‘Drive to Stop Diabetes’. How did you get involved?
Matt: My dad and I were watching a race and we saw Ryan Reed in a car that said ‘Drive to Stop Diabetes’. We couldn’t get over how awesome that was. My dad reached out to Ryan’s charity offering to help fundraise at a local level where I race. Now my car looks just like Ryan's – Number 16. . It is red and everything!
Alissa: When you are racing, who do you work with medically to care for your diabetes?
Matt: For the most part, it is just my parents, my brother and my family. There are other people in the picture who know I'm diabetic and know what to do, but my main support is my family.
Alissa: How many races do you do a year?
Matt: I'll do a little over 20 at the local track and then go south and do some races in the winter. I did winter nationals last year in Las Vegas and Florida, so that equals about six races in the off season. In total, I would say about 30 races per year.
Alissa: Are you also a part of NASCAR racing?
Matt: I am not a part of NASCAR racing but Legends cars have a division, which is supposed to be a size down, cost effective model. That was the idea behind Legends.
Alissa: Do you plan on competing in the Olympics or becoming a professional racer? Which is your favorite sport?
Matt: Being in the Olympics would be very cool, but I don't think it is likely. It's hard being from Minnesota where we have hills and it’s hard to compete against states like Colorado where you can live on a mountain and snowboard and train every day. I definitely love snowboarding – it’s like racing in a lot of aspects. But I would probably say that racing is my favorite. I would love to become a professional racecar driver. I'm going to go as far as I can in racing, but if I don't make it to a professional level, that's okay too.
Alissa: Do you have different types of athletic plans in your future?
Matt: I want to keep pursuing racing and do both sports as much as possible. At the same time, I plan on going to college and getting an education. That definitely plays a factor in it as well.
Alissa: What advice would you give people with diabetes who want to compete in racing or any other kind of sport?
Matt: You can really do anything you want with diabetes, as long as you’re willing to take the time to manage your blood sugar. It's not always easy to do that; especially while snowboarding when it's cold out. You don't want to take your gloves off and do your tests on a hill, but that's what you have to do with these types of sports when you’re diabetic.
Alissa: I really appreciate your time. I hope you have a great summer!
Matt Allen with car race car
You can keep up with Matt at http://www.greatnorthlegends.com
Please consider donating to Ryan Reed's charity DriveToStopDiabetes