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Professional tennis player JC Aragone is the first type 1 diabetic to play in the U.S. Open tournament

There was a time that JC Aragone imagined he might become a professional tennis star as a teenager in Southern California. But that was before a full-on immune system attack caused by a severe drug reaction landed him in a coma and took him away from the sport for several months.

Then, after recovering from that and starting to make his way back to tennis, a type 1 diabetes diagnosis again almost derailed his dreams.

All told, JC was away from competitive tennis for longer than he'd ever been in his life since starting to play as a young child. But that didn't deter him. In fact, by age 22 he'd managed to make "a miracle turn" that led him to a place he wasn't expecting: becoming the first person with type 1 diabetes to ever compete in the U.S. Open in 2017. Now, at 24 years old, JC has just made his third appearance in that top tennis tournament.

"It's always extremely chaotic being at the U.S. Open in New York, but for me it's a cool experience, being able to hit on center court this year. It's a fun tournament to be a part of!" he says.

Fun indeed, and JC is making diabetes and tennis history. We had the chance to connect with him recently to learn about his health triumphs, and ambitions in the tennis world.

 

Finding tennis in a new country

Tennis pro JC Aragone

Born in Argentina, JC (Juan Cruz) says he began playing tennis about age 5, just a couple years before his family left Buenos Aires for the United States during the Argentine Great Depression. As they headed to California, they left everything behind -- including their home, his dad's thriving business, their extended family and their pet dogs. As JC's dad Facundo had played tennis professionally himself for a time in Europe, the sport became a way for father and so to bond during the transition to a new life here in the U.S.

"As you can imagine, it was tough for a kid at such a young age," JC tells us, reflecting on those early times at 7 or 8 years old. "I chose (tennis) as an escape, and came home every day after school and would hit with my father. I didn't speak the language, so playing tennis helped me transition."

JC also adds with a laugh: "With him playing tennis a bit professionally, I didn't really have a choice of another sport. I had no say in that."

By age 12, JC had begun winning tournaments, and by the time he hit his teen years, he eventually ranked No. 4 in the nation for junior players of his age bracket. He reached the U.S. Open Juniors tournament twice. That also led him to train full-time with the U.S. Tennis Association in Florida, and opened the door for his participation in international events. At that time, it appeared the path was a promising one toward professional tennis at a young age.

But it was around that time that JC's body appeared to have other plans.

 

A coma derails his game

In roughly 2011, the first health scare happened. JC had recently moved to Boca Raton, FL, for tennis training, which to him was "pretty much everything," he recounts. Two days before an event in South America, JC recalls feeling ill with flu-like symptoms, a fever and a developing rash. It got worse, so instead of traveling internationally he flew home to California and ended up in the ER, and going then falling into a coma for two weeks.

He remembers waking up at one point and being told that he had kidney and liver failure and an enlarged spleen. "Basically, my whole body was burning from the inside-out. They put cold towels on me and you could just see the steam coming off."

Turns out, it was a severe reaction to an acne medicine that JC had been taking, and his body's immune system had begun attacking every organ the drug had touched (including his heart, thyroid and pancreas). "That almost killed me for a little bit there," he says.

The next three to four months were spent in the hospital recovering, and JC says the process was painful -- dialysis, steroid treatments, immune suppressants, and so on. After he was discharged from the hospital, he continued an 18-month recovery process. He remembers not being able to go outside into the sunlight because his skin had been so damaged, and staying in his room for at least a few months running.

"That's when I decided to get back into tennis. I was still struggling a lot with my health, but was able to begin practicing. It had been over a year and I had missed playing."

By late 2012, he'd fought his way back to health and was ready to start his journey back toward professional tennis. He remembers going to a junior tournament in Michigan, where the second shoe dropped relation to JC's health.

 

Enter type 1 diabetes

JC describes common symptoms that began when he was playing tennis in that Michigan tournament. After he flew home to Florida, the T1D diagnosis came.

"After the initial health scare, getting back into tennis was super-difficult. I'd been playing since I was 5 and it was so natural, but it was the first time I'd felt so uncomfortable out there. It took me a few months. But that almost prepared me for the second health scare, when I was diagnosed with type 1."

This time, he was somewhat better prepared for the setback and struggle to come.

"With that initial health scare, after knowing that I wasn't going to die, all I could think about was getting back into tennis. But the second time around, I knew that tennis would be fine and I could focus on diabetes and learn how to manage it." 

JC says it's unclear whether his near-death coma experience led to diabetes, but he says the doctors told him (and it makes a lot of sense) that his body had been under so much stress that T1D was one of the byproducts. He also admits now that his body likely wasn't ready to get back into tennis at that level, so he thinks it was a combo of all those factors that led to T1D.

He took a few months off learning the D-ropes, so to speak, before turning his attention back to his sport and life ahead.

"Yes, I found my way back to tennis, but that whole transition was extremely difficult and it opened up other parts of my life that I hadn't really focused on before," he says.

 

College, diabetes, a "real job" and professional tennis

JC found his way to the University of Virginia, one of the best tennis programs in the country. He'd join the tennis team and go on to help them win three consecutive national championships. That college experience turned out to be critical for his sport, and also life-affirming.

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JC Aragone played for the University of Virginia's championship tennis team

"I learned how to manage my diabetes by going to college and having the experiences that I had," he says. "Everyone has to take their own route, but there's no right or wrong answer. For me, figuring this out on my own was the best path forward. That independence helped me take diabetes more seriously."

It was also there in college that JC says he learned how much support he truly had, rather than his expected "go it alone" mindset at the beginning of UVA. 

Though he struggled in that first year as a student-athlete balancing school with tennis, he bucked down academically and turned to studying finances as a way to dial back tennis and look toward a professional, non-sports career. He landed an internship at JP Morgan Chase, giving him a chance to work in an office and "see how the other half lives, beyond just hitting a tennis ball. If you talk to many other tennis players, they don't know what it's like to sit in a cubicle all day. I can tell you, it's not easy. But for me it was amazing. It was tough for my tennis, but I grew more as a person."

The experience presented a choice: did he want to go that route or continue pursuing professional tennis? His parents encouraged him to follow his dreams, and JC points out that he could always go back to work but may not have the chance to play tennis at this level again.

He opted to give tennis a year. That was in 2017, which was another year that changed everything. He ended up in the U.S. Open unexpectedly. Though he wasn't one of the 128 players worldwide to make the qualifying round, JC received a wildcard and made it into that top tennis tournament where he played with the world's best in the sport. He's made it back there in 2018 and 2019.

"I feel like I'll always have tennis in my life and do something related to tennis, because it's the one thing I have always found my way back to no matter what I've gone through," he says.

 

Embracing diabetes on and off the court

That first year in the 2017 U.S. Open, JC became the first-ever type 1 to play in the tourament. As such, tournament leaders hadn't had the experience of dealing with anyone needing insulin injections or glucose monitoring before. JC set a new standard, having to fight to be able to inject insulin during the tournament -- because insulin is considered a performance-enhancing drug and isn't traditionally allowed for athletes. That has changed through the years in other sports, but this was a first for the U.S. Open. JC got that permission the day before he was scheduled to play in 2017, but he says it's still a struggle at times because it's not common for officials to see athletes injecting at the tournament.

If he does need an insulin dose during the tournament, JC says he must notify the doctor and be escorted off the court into a private area to do the injection.

"I think it's blown out of proportion, because it would only take me 60 seconds to inject my insulin there on the court," he says. "I don't like that it seems like I'm doing something wrong, and it feels like they're looking at it in the wrong light... To me, if someone saw that on TV, I think it could be a positive to help raise awareness. But again, that's really the option I have nowadays and I choose to not make a big deal out of it."

Since his first U.S. Open tournament, JC has gone onto an insulin pump, the Tandem t:slim X2 with Basal-IQ. But because of the high intensity and sweating, he doesn't wear it while out on the court. He does wear his Dexcom CGM, but admits that he tries to keep that discrete because U.S. Open rules generally prohibit electronic devices like smartphones with players on the court.

During practices, he tends to go Low, compared to tournaments where he often goes High because of the increased stress and adrenaline. His set routine includes eating the same breakfasts and meals before tournaments, so he can better keep tabs on his BG levels.

"It's tough competing at this level, knowing that I also have to worry about my diabetes, and not just the tennis match," he says. "Sometimes, I have days where it feels a bit unfair. I step out onto the court and my opponent literally has one thing -- winning the tennis match -- to worry about, where I have to not only worry about that but also managing my sugar and diabetes. It's double-the-duty out there."

Every day is different, from the stress levels to weather and all those factors known or unknown that impact diabetes management. It's a lot of adjusting and adapting, he says. But overall, JC says facing the ever-changing challenges of diabetes has helped him do better in tennis and prepare him for what happens on the court.

That applies to his activities off the court, too.

For the past couple years, he's been speaking at various diabetes events -- from JDRF Type One Nation Summits to the Friends For Life conference held by Children with Diabetes in Orlando this past July. He's looking forward to continuing doing that, no matter what the future holds on the professional tennis side.

“When I was diagnosed… I kept it kind of hush-hush for a couple years. So going now I can see what good all of these events bring, and how kids and teens are so excited to go to diabetes camps and events. For me, it’s fun and eye-opening: you’re in a room with people who just want to help you, whether they live with diabetes themselves or not. You don’t get that in a lot of other places. That’s really neat to think about, because tennis is a pretty selfish sport, if you think about it… so having this new peer support community wherever I go is incredible.”