Former pro cyclist launches diabetes foundation

The Associated Press

Phil Southerland conquered diabetes, a disease he'd been diagnosed with as an infant, to become one of the country's top cyclists by the time he graduated from high school.

What he couldn't overcome was his lack of college savings.

''For 18 years of my life, my mom, on top of health insurance, had to pay $300 a month out-of-pocket to keep me alive and manage my condition,'' Southerland said. ''That was a lot of money that could have gone toward a college fund but instead went toward staying alive.''

So, he went looking for financial assistance and, ''I couldn't find a scholarship anywhere in the world,'' Southerland recalled. ''For me, it was frustrating not to have an opportunity because of a disease that's hard to manage while you're playing sports.''

He eventually went to the University of Georgia, where he ''racked up a ton of student loan debt'' before becoming a professional cyclist.

That experience drove Southerland, now, 31, to become a global diabetes advocate and the co-founder of the world's first all-diabetes professional cycling team along with Joe Eldridge, a fellow diabetic who raced at Auburn.

On Thursday, coinciding with ''World Diabetes Day,'' Southerland launched the Team Type 1 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to address disparities in diabetes care around the world.

The Foundation's first U.S. initiative is a scholarship program for NCAA athletes with Type 1 diabetes. The program will award up to seven scholarships of $5,000 each to help student-athletes and their families offset the cost of diabetes care, he said.

''We're looking to get a lot of young athletes and empower them to make a difference through sport and take some of the financial burden off their parents, who have invested so much already just for them to stay alive,'' Southerland said.

Southerland's wife, Dr. Biljana Southerland, is the architect of Macedonia's national diabetes program, which covers the cost of insulin and glucose testing supplies for everyone there who has diabetes. The program will be used as a model for the foundation's goal of helping developing countries establish sustainable diabetes care policies.

Team Type 1's first global initiative is providing Rwanda with a year's supply of test strips and glucose meters, Southerland said.

Southerland retired from professional racing in 2009 to become the CEO and co-founder of Team Novo Nordisk, a global sports organization home to more than 100 endurance athletes with diabetes, spearheaded by the world's first all-diabetes pro cycling team.

Now competing as Team Novo Nordisk, the cycling team's goal is to reach the Tour de France by 2021, the year which marks the 100th anniversary of the invention of insulin.

Although it's a chronic condition, those affected by diabetes can lead healthy lives through a combination of nutrition, physical activity, blood glucose monitoring and medicine.

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