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Image via Chris Bright / photographer John Smith

When Chris Bright in Wales was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) at age 9, he was pretty sure his dream of playing competitive soccer — or football as it’s known outside of America — was dead on arrival.

After all, even at that young age in the late 1990s, a social stigma existed around diabetes that convinced him his athletic aspirations wouldn’t be achievable.

Looking back now, the 30-year-old realizes that was anything but true. Yet like many athletes with diabetes, it took him many years of navigating that stigma as a teen and twenty-something to finally reach a place where his dreams didn’t seem off-limits.

Today, he can celebrate becoming a semi-professional soccer player widely popular on the world stage. He has also founded the UK-based team and online forum known as the Diabetes Football Community with the motto “Live, Play, Inspire.” Bright has a degree in sports studies and is working on a Master’s degree focused specifically on diabetes stigma around athletic pursuits. This is his path to “giving back” to the community.

“I feel quite lucky,” says a humble Bright. “I’ve worked hard for what I have done and where I am, and I think you always feel a twinge of being blessed for accomplishing this with type 1 diabetes. I’m just trying to do my best, I guess.”

Chris Bright

Fortunately, it’s a familiar story these days. While Bright’s diagnosis at age 9 threw him and his family for a loop, he soon realized that he would be able to continue playing his most beloved sport.

“I was just trying to come to terms with what this means,” he said. “Am I going to die? You really don’t know, as a child seeing your parents upset and struggling. And then, once I got past that question, it was whether I could continue playing football.”

In fact, his grandfather had lived with T1D for many years before, but had passed on before Bright’s diagnosis as a kid.

“It was like all of a sudden, it felt like my dreams were going to be snatched away from me, and this love for the sport that I’d built up already was going to be taken away,” he said.

Together with his family and healthcare team, Bright began to work on a regimen that would allow him to do what he loved.

In the early years, he was using mixture insulin (combo of short- and long-acting insulins), which actually made playing quite challenging with frequent highs and lows. There were times he didn’t feel like himself, he says, or that he wasn’t playing his “A Game” as it were. But that was just a part of growing up with T1D while pursuing athletic endeavors.

Later, multiple daily injections, or MDI therapy, changed his management and gave him more energy and ability to navigate his diabetes while playing soccer.

“Things started to come together,” he says.

He also started to come to terms with the isolation, stigma, and denial he had felt for a long time, as described in this video testimonial.

Once reaching his late teen and young adult years, Bright had the opportunity to play for his county and university. After graduation, he was offered to play on the semi-professional level.

He joined the Wales Futsal International team in 2016. Futsal, which is played worldwide, is a scaled-down version of soccer played indoors rather than outdoors. This marked him as a versatile “all around soccer player,” and he was called into the England Universities Futsal squad in January 2018.

Following his success at England Universities and performances for the University of Worcester, he was awarded Male Athlete of the Year for the 2017/18 season.

“From that moment, I felt differently about my diabetes,” he said. “I’d pushed myself so hard… (and) at that moment I finally realized I was able to achieve the potential I had in sport. Maybe for a minute, I felt as though I’d overcome diabetes and beaten it for a short moment where it didn’t hold me back.”

Bright has since made several more appearances for Wales across the world in the past years, and won some additional soccer-related awards. In early 2020, the Futbol Association of Wales published a short documentary video in which he shares his T1D diagnosis story and how that impacted his competitive play through the years.

Bright says he realizes now that he hadn’t talked publicly or openly about his diabetes for many years, but doing so opened a new door for him to become an advocate, and hopefully inspire others.

Bright says that for many years, perceived stigma made him “go inward” and keep his health issues a secret from his teammates and coaches.

In fact, he worked hard to hide his diabetes during his teens and early 20s — from doing fingersticks and insulin injections in private, to masking his need for food and a structured routine while playing. It took a toll on his diabetes management.

He says that impulse to hide is a shame, and an issue for many who have health conditions in the competitive sports world.

Today, Bright is completing a Master’s thesis on exactly this issue.

His research involved analyzing selected online content from blog posts, Facebook posts, and tweets as well as interviewing several type 1 members of the sports community. His findings indicate that secrecy is an incredibly common coping mechanism.

“The show-no-weakness culture, masculinity and macho approach that’s embedded in Football really pushes players to hide anything that could be perceived as a weakness by fans, players, coaches or the media. This is why for example there’s not a single player in any professional Football league in England who has come out as gay,” he writes.

“It’s a perceived weakness which goes against the image of masculinity and strength within the sport so therefore must be hidden. In all other parts of society that stigma is beginning to break, but in sports it still remains, and I believe that it forms the basis of why those in our community, who strongly identify themselves as a footballer, hide the fact they live with T1D.”

Bright suggests that this secrecy may increase the likelihood of poorer self-management and thus health outcomes, not to mention the drain on mental health. He notes that much more exploration is necessary, but to date the only organization focusing on this topic appears to be the Australian Centre for Behavioral Research in Diabetes.

“Teenagers can feel that (stigma) is one of the hardest things they experience, because sports is pretty unforgiving. Anything like injecting insulin or having a medical condition is frowned upon and can be seen as a weakness compared to someone else.”

In 2015, Bright began to explore the Diabetes Online Community (DOC) and the power of peer support, he says.

He began connecting with others with diabetes who were playing football within the UK and around the world, and soon enough he found that community was a powerful resource that he wanted to help build upon for the soccer community. In February 2017, he created the Diabetes Football Community site and forum.

The org is aimed at supporting the needs of people with diabetes who share a passion for football. In the forum, members share first-hand experiences and stories of T1D challenges, and all are invited to participate in a pan-European tournament called “Dia-Euro.” The group also recently held an online conference for T1D athletes in which they discussed management techniques and sports-focused aspects of life with diabetes.

“I didn’t have anyone to look up to when I was growing up, so this stems from that to some extent,” Bright says. “I didn’t know how important at the time it was to share my own story and help connect people, but I wanted to do something that could give back. It has changed my life, knowing that I’m not alone and being able to help others see that too.”