The COVID-19 pandemic meant “a new normal” for so many of us worldwide, but for Kate Hall-Harnden in Maine who lives with type 1 diabetes (T1D), it led to dashed dreams of reaching the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. That might be a heartbreaking story, if not for how this champion long jumper turned an unfortunate injury into inspiration to start a new nonprofit to help people with diabetes (PWDs) in need.
With the Olympic Games in Japan taking place July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021, Hall-Harnden spoke with DiabetesMine by phone recently about how she’ll be watching from home, after having torn a ligament in her left knee in January. It’s tough, but the 24-year-old has her eye on the future. She’s still hoping to one day reach that highest level of athletic competition, even as she pours her passion into diabetes empowerment.
She and her husband have formed the DiaStrong Foundation, with the mission of providing financial assistance to individuals and research organizations, and fitness and athletic training programs for PWDs looking to improve in their sport and their diabetes management.
Interestingly for Hall-Harnden, both track and field and T1D came into her life at pretty much the same time: when she was 10 years old in 2007.
“I think that if I hadn’t been diagnosed with diabetes at that young age and hadn’t had to work harder and take care of my body, I don’t know if I would have been as successful in my track career,” she told DiabetesMine. “I attribute some of my work ethic and success to being diagnosed with type 1 at age 10.”
She had been involved in organized sports since she was 6 years old, but discovered running a few years later.
“From that very first practice day, I just fell in love with the sport and knew that was going to be my sport,” she recalls. “From there, I got better and better every year and met the goals I’d set in my personal notebook that I’d been keeping with my goals and records since I was 10 years old.”
Her T1D diagnosis came just a few months after she’d started the new sport.
At first, the family doctor wrote Hall’s health concerns up to a growth spurt. But her family Googled the symptoms and the top search result was “type 1 diabetes.” They bought a meter at the store and got a “very high” result. There was no family history, but they knew something more was wrong. They went to the local hospital, where Hall-Harnden clocked in with high glucose levels in the 500s and received the T1D diagnosis.
Hall remembers she took the syringe from the nurse to give herself her first insulin injection. Her mom was upset, but the 10-year-old reassured her mom. “I knew everything was going to be all right, and told her to stop crying. She felt better, and it reassured her that I knew it’d be OK.”
At first, she was scared this condition would stop her from doing the things she loves, particularly sports. The doctor initially told her she’d have to sit out of soccer games until she got used to managing her condition.
“That was really hard for me. I remember sitting on the sidelines and wondering, ‘Why do I have to do this?’” she said. “But over time, it motivated me to not be on the sidelines. It was a pivotal moment that motivated me, so that diabetes wouldn’t get in the way of anything.”
Now, she believes that the combo of T1D and her love for sports set the stage for success throughout her life.
Her attitude paid off.
She went on to set the national high school record in the long jump as a high school senior in 2015, leaping an impressive 22 feet, 5 inches outdoors and crushing the high school record for that event in track and field. She became a two-time NCAA Division I champion, and at one time was the No. 6 ranked American female long jumper.
In her early competitive years, Hall-Harnden says she started off using an insulin pen. Then, between ages 11 and 15, she used a tubed insulin pump. But she found it difficult to stay connected to her tubed pump and would often disconnect it for an entire event. That led to problems competing, because her blood sugars would skyrocket and by the end she’d be in the 300 or 400s with ketones (which can lead to dangerous diabetic ketoacidosis).
“Fear set in,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to do, and I thought this could stop me from doing track.”
After talking to her diabetes care team, she discovered the tubeless Omnipod patch pump that could allow her to better manage her diabetes while competing.
It was about that same time she started competing at a higher level, moving toward a goal of reaching the Olmypics.
Her parents didn’t necessarily think it was realistic at that time, but she pushed forward and they encouraged and supported her.
During college, she continued making track and field headlines at the University of Oregon and Texas A&M University, and she made it to the U.S. Olympic Trials finals in 2016, where she came in 10th place. By 2017, she was ranked the 18th top women’s long jumper in the world.
Her best year came in 2019, after she returned to Maine for school and to train with a longtime trainer who was her coach when she was younger. Not only was she reaching a goal of jumping 22 feet consistently, Hall-Harnden says her diabetes management was “spot on.”
All seemed to be on track for her to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo; she was ranked second in the United States for the long jump based on her indoor mark.
But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and that led to the Summer Games being postponed until July 2021.
Her local training facilities were closed because of COVID-19 restrictions, but Hall-Harnden says she used the time to train differently and move toward her dreams. Even a pandemic wouldn’t stop her from reaching that competitive level, she told herself.
Then another even more devastating blow occurred.
In early 2021, just a week before she’d expected to begin Olympic qualifying competition, the unthinkable happened. It was the final practice before qualifying, and a routine training exercise at her pandemic-adapted gym (because her normal gym was still shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions) led to a serious injury. She was running at high speed and jumping onto a box for a box-jump drill, but went too far and landed on the far edge of that box; it tipped over and she braced herself for the fall by extending her left leg. She hyperextended it and fell to the ground, with sharp pain in her knee.
Exams and an MRI showed it was a complete left ACL tear, meaning her dreams of competing in the 2020-21 Olympic Games would not be possible.
“I was so devastated,” she said. “There are good days and bad days in processing everything, and I don’t think I will ever be over it. But I’m taking things one day at a time, trying to grow from it and work hard. It’s a hard time, and I know I will be back from this.”
Her surgery in early February went smoothly and she expects to be back in full form for competition by January, though she’s setting her sights on 2022 to get back to the elite athletic competitive level.
Her short-term goal: being with the U.S. team when it heads to the 3-day 2022 Indoor World Championships in Serbia.
After that, the Summer Olympics in 2024 is the long-term goal.
Hall-Harnden says she watched the Olympic trials and plans to watch the long jump, even if she’s not sure she should for her mental health. But she just can’t stay away.
“Watching it might motivate me to keep working hard to come back as soon as I possibly can,” she said. “It’s going to be rough watching it, but it will motivate me even more.”
On top of recovery and competing, Hall-Harnden has also used the 2020 and 2021 circumstances to make two other positive changes in her life.
First, she got married! She and her husband Tyler had initially planned to get married in May 2021 after the Olympic qualifying events, but with the COVID-19 pandemic postponement, they decided to tie the knot in October 2020.
Hall-Harnden and her new husband also launched a diabetes nonprofit called the DiaStrong Foundation.
After her injury, Hall-Harnden began talking with her training partner Kendall Spencer, an attorney and former NCAA long jump champion who had moved to Portland, ME. He suggested thinking beyond her track career, and after talking with her husband, she came up with an idea.
“I’d always been asked: ‘What will you do after your track career is over?’ But I never really had an answer, aside from vague ‘coaching or counseling’ in track and field. I knew I also wanted to do something in diabetes advocacy, and now this is a way to pull it all together.”
Growing up, she’d done motivational speaking at diabetes events for Omnipod-manufacturer Insulet and also testified at a U.S. Senate committee as part of the JDRF Children’s Congress. Now, she’s channeling that passion for advocacy into the DiaStrong Foundation, which obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in April 2021 and kicked off in early summer.
The high-level goal is empowering other PWDs to achieve their dreams even with diabetes, and that happens in the form of providing financial assistance where needed, as well as offering a diabetes camp and personal training focused on young athletes with diabetes.
First, Hall-Harnden wants to make the DiaStrong Foundation a resource for people to go for more information about thriving with diabetes and help affording needed supplies. They’ve planned to launch grants for financial assistance in July 2021, and those details are being finalized. You can learn more about their grants and scholarships here.
The org will host two Maine-based camps in mid-2021 — an athletic-agility camp specifically for athletes with diabetes between 12 and 25 years old, and another more general camp for PWDs of any age who just want to be in better shape.
Her training partner Spencer, who also has a personal diabetes connection through his brother, is allowing them to use the field behind his gym in Portland, ME. Hall-Harnden runs the diabetes management and athletic training sides of the camps.
Eventually, the hope is for more age-specific camps and one for younger children, as well as online virtual training — something else that has become more possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of their first clients is a 50-year-old T1D who wants to compete and lives outside Maine, so they are counseling and training him in a virtual course.
Hall-Harnden says her nonprofit work fills up most of her days, and it’s providing her a more positive outlook as she continues recovery and rehabilitation.
“Everything happens for a reason, and this is where I’m supposed to be, doing what I am doing,” she said.