One Stroke at a Time
Writer(s): Mat Mikesell
Jennifer Miles sat with her mother in the waiting room of the doctor's office anxiously for her diagnosis. Jennifer was losing weight and anything she would eat or drink wouldn't stay in her system, but she didn't know what was wrong with her.
Then the doctor walked in.
"You need to get to Riley's hospital right now," she told them.
At that point, Jennifer and her mother Debra knew something was seriously wrong. When they got to the hospital, they found Jennifer had Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association, most cases of Type 1 diabetes-where the body does not produce insulin-are diagnosed in children and young adults.
After Jennifer was diagnosed, she had to learn the treatment and how to take care of herself. She had to learn how to control her blood sugar, what foods would affect her the most and more importantly, how to adapt to becoming an athlete with diabetes.
"It was really hard at first," Jennifer says. "Because I didn't know what Type 1 diabetes was. I was totally new to it. I had heard of it, but didn't know what it meant."
A junior on the Ball State women's swimming and diving team, Jennifer has been successful in her first two seasons. She's competed each season at the Mid-American Conference Championships and in her sophomore season she recorded a career-best 53.58 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle.
But her accomplishments didn't come easy. After her diagnosis, Jennifer says the thought of no longer being able to swim did not cross her mind. The doctors knew she was an athlete and made sure to tell her she would still be able to swim; she would just have to do it differently from now on.
Jennifer was the first in her family to be diagnosed with diabetes, but she isn't the first swimmer in her family. Her father Michael swam at the University of Houston during college and her aunt Jennifer Brinegar was a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Quebec. Both of her sisters are also swimmers. Her older sister Katie was recruited by Ball State coach Laura Seibold-Caudill.
When Seibold-Caudill learned about Jennifer's diagnosis she didn't back off her recruitment.
"I knew she had the drive and determination," Seibold-Caudill says. "I still maintained that and knew it was part of the package. I don't let that interfere."
When Jennifer arrived at Ball State for her freshman year she again had to learn a new process. On her own for the first time in her life, she had to learn how to balance the independence of college with the responsibility of maintaining her blood sugar levels.
Debra saw her daughter becoming a student-athlete at Ball State as the next step in the process to develop her self-confidence, but it was also a time when Jennifer's diabetes started affecting her the most.
Two weeks after the MAC Championships her freshman year the team began its usual spring training, but during the two weeks Jennifer had raised her insulin levels because she wasn't training. When it came time to start training again, she hadn't lowered her blood sugar levels.
After one of the practices, she walked back to her room and fell asleep. This wasn't just a normal sleep; she had slipped into a diabetic coma. When her roommate found her, it probably saved Jennifer's life.
"I just kinda went to sleep," Jennifer says. "I wasn't really thinking straight."
According to the Mayo Clinic, a diabetic coma is a dangerous complication that causes unconsciousness. It can be caused by either having extremely high blood sugar levels or extremely low blood sugar levels. If a person has fallen into a diabetic coma for a period of time it can be life-threatening.
She would have a second scare with a diabetic coma the following summer, but this time at home where her parents found her.
Since then, Jennifer has made sure not to fall into a third one. She hasn't had any significant scares with her diabetes since then either. But her challenges in the pool haven't gotten any easier.
At the beginning of this season Jennifer was in the weight room doing deadlifts when she felt a sharp pain in her back and legs. The pain was so severe that she could hardly walk to the team's trainer to have it looked at.
"It's a really weird feeling," she says. "I just knew instantly something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was."
Jennifer figured she only pulled a muscle in her back and would be back in the pool in less than two weeks. The trainer thought she had no reason to not be able to swim again this season. When she got back into the pool, however, she started feeling the pain again and knew it was something more serious.
"The flip turns, starts and really quick, fast motions hurt," Jennifer says. "Bending down and straightening out, especially on turns were really painful."
After another evaluation Jennifer found out she had three herniated discs in her back, ending her season. She was frustrated and overwhelmed. She had never gone an extended period of time without swimming. An athlete that suffers from one herniated disc has it bad enough, but three herniated discs is rare. Jennifer and her coach both say they have no reason to believe she can't respond from it.
"She's been able to manage her diabetes along with being a Division 1 swimmer pretty well," Seibold-Caudill says. "It just seems like more bad luck with her back injury. But we're given obstacles that challenge us that we have to overcome and makes us better in the long run."
Jennifer plans to return to the pool next season to finish her senior year, but until then she does rehab and physical therapy nearly everyday. With her time away from the pool, Jennifer says she's been learning life lessons.
"Both her dad and I have had surgery on our backs," Debra says. "We just told her let's get over this hurdle and come back to swim. You just have to roll with the punches and move forward."
With the adversities she's been forced to fight through, her mother believes it will only make Jennifer stronger in the long run, especially on her path to become a kindergarten teacher.
"She will someday have a husband and children that will be faced with adversity and she will be able to show them by example," Debra says. "It will make her a wonderful teacher. She'll be able to teach her students that adversity will not stop you from doing what you aspire to do in life."