U.S. Olympic Skier Finds Team Spirit, Minus The Team
The U.S. Olympic team is taking shape in the run-up to next month's Winter Games in Russia. This week, the Olympic cross-country ski team names the athletes who'll be going to Sochi, and veteran Kris Freeman is vying for another spot.
The 33-year-old Freeman already has been to three Olympic Games, and he's considered the country's best long distance racer over the past decade.
All that despite the fact that he has diabetes.
Freeman has had a successful career filled with challenges; first and foremost managing his disease while becoming an elite competitor in one of the most physically taxing sports there is. But this past year, Freeman encountered a new obstacle when his long relationship with the national ski team abruptly ended.
Keeping It Level
When Kris Freeman begins each race, he has completed a checklist that's unique among his competitors. Ski wax? Check. Racing strategy? Check. Blood sugar level? Check.
It's been that way since 2000. That's when Freeman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It's a condition where the body doesn't make the insulin needed to convert sugar from food into energy. In a 2006 NPR interview, Freeman demonstrated how he pricked his finger, multiple times each day, to measure the sugar in his bloodstream and make sure the amount wasn't too high or low.
Since then, the technology has advanced. Freeman now uses a continuous glucose monitor; he describes it as a little receiver he implants in subcutaneous fat that gives a blood sugar level reading every five minutes. He also uses an insulin pump and says it has its advantages.
"I don't need to take injections when I need insulin," he says, adding he has a remote device and he can program it to give much more precise amounts of insulin.
The improved technology allows him to do a good job managing his "sugar state" as he calls it. At least most of the time.s
Freeman describes a harrowing experience at the last Olympic Games, in Vancouver in 2010. Before the 30 kilometer pursuit, he says he made a rare error in the pre-race prepping of his blood sugar level. It was too low, and according to Freeman: "I actually had to stop for about a minute and consume more glucose in order to continue."
In fact, he collapsed.
"I did fall over," Freeman acknowledges, chuckling, "that would be another way to say 'I stopped.'"
That's vintage Kris Freeman. He's a stoic from New Hampshire, who tries to keep his attitude as level as his blood sugar.
But that even keel demeanor was seriously rocked last spring. That's when the U.S. Ski team cut him.
A Relationship Ends
Freeman says he got a call from a U.S. Ski team official who broke the bad news.
"They said my trajectory wasn't what they were looking for," Freeman says. "[They said] that I had been skiing at kind of a plateaued level. I couldn't really argue with that except that I thought my plateau was pretty high."
It was, judging by Freeman's domestic results. Last April, he won the latest of his 16 national titles. But that wasn't the issue.
The U.S. Ski team declined an interview request, but a spokesman did say the decision was made because Freeman didn't meet the criteria for team selection two years in a row. According to the spokesman, the criteria are based on international results, including a World Cup overall ranking in the top 50.
In 2012, Freeman ranked 86th. In 2013, his overall ranking was 75th.
Freeman says he was surprised and disappointed and that yes, anger crept in as well.
"As Olympians, you live your life in four-year blocks," he says. "After being with the team for three years in preparation for Sochi, then being cut on the actual Olympic year, [it's] pretty unprecedented."
The U.S. Ski team spokesman says the team "has a pretty long history of carrying guys who are off criteria. But [Freeman] was so far off."
It's well-chronicled that Olympic sport in this country is not as well funded as in other parts of the world. The U.S. Ski team felt its limited finances would be better spent on athletes who'd posted better results and who had, in Freeman's words, a better "trajectory."
A Steep Learning Curve
The U.S. Ski team decision, Freeman says, cost him tens of thousands of dollars of support.
"When you go to the World Cup and you're on the U.S. Ski team they'll pay for your [ski] waxing support. They'll kick in and pay for part of your travel and just help with little things," he says. And you lose all that. You lose the funding for going to training camps, and thus you lose the opportunities to go head-to-head with the best skiers in the country."
Health insurance was a big loss for Freeman in particular.
"I've used the U.S. Olympic Committee health insurance since 2000, when I was diagnosed with diabetes," he says. "And I use it more than just about any other person I know on this team.
"There was a lot of stress and a little bit of a steep learning curve this last year trying to figure out how I was going to pay for certain things and what I was going to do for health insurance once my COBRA ran out," Freeman says.
Personal saving and sponsorships, including a long standing one with the drug company Eli Lilly, helped Freeman make up the deficit. He also joined a skiing club – Maine Winter sports center. Freeman says the club helped him with skis and food and lodging at this month's U.S. Nationals in Utah.
And then a couple of months ago, more help arrived.
Helping A Local Hero
Chris Sununu, co-owner of Waterville Valley ski resort in New Hampshire, heard about Freeman's situation.
"This is a guy that has put himself on the line for the United States year after year," Sununu says. "And to be dumped like that didn't seem right."
So in Sununu's words, "we kind of took action." He offered Freeman a job at the resort, which Freeman says has been his home ski area since he was six years old. Freeman signed on to teach racing clinics, which he did this past weekend, in exchange for a small stipend and most importantly, for health coverage.
"It meant a lot to me," Freeman says.
A Bright Olympic Future?
Freeman finished third in two races at this month's national championships. He says those results should help him make the U.S. Olympic team this week.
"I'm 99 percent sure I'll be named," Freeman says.
If he is, he'll represent the U.S. even though he won't be a member of the U.S. ski team. But Freeman insists his split from the team won't give him any extra competitive juice in Sochi.
"I'm not looking for vindication," he says. "I'm not looking to make anyone look bad. I've been a professional ski racer for 13 years, and what I'm looking for is my best performance."
Freeman's top Olympic result was a 5th place finish in a relay at the 2002 Salt Lake City games. He says he's been training better and smarter in the run-up to Sochi, and says he's ready – if chosen.
"I still believe my best Olympic results are in front of me."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Winter Olympics in Russia are coming up fast. And this week, the U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team names the athletes who will be going to Sochi. Veteran Kris Freeman is vying for a spot again. He's already been to three Olympic Games and he's considered the country's best long distance racer over the past decade. And he has diabetes. Freeman has had a successful career filled with challenges, but perhaps none bigger than this past year when his long relationship with the national ski team ended abruptly.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here you go, men's 30 kilometer.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thirty-three-year-old Kris Freeman broke from the start at this month's U.S. Nationals in Utah, his unusual pre-race checklist, complete: ski wax - check, race strategy - check, blood sugar level - check.
In 2000, Freeman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It's a condition where the body doesn't make the insulin needed to convert sugar and other food into energy. In a 2006 NPR interview, Freeman demonstrated how he jabbed his finger, multiple times a day, to measure the sugar in his bloodstream and make sure the amount wasn't too high or low.
KRIS FREEMAN: Stick, drop blood. Result, OK.
GOLDMAN: Freeman now uses a device that continuously monitors his blood sugar level. The improved technology allows him to do a good job managing his sugar state, as he calls it - most of the time. At the 2010 winter Olympics, in the 30 kilometers, Freeman describes how he stopped because of low blood sugar before finishing the race. Actually, he collapsed.
FREEMAN: I did fall over. That would be another way to say I stopped, I suppose.
GOLDMAN: Vintage Kris Freeman, a stoic from New Hampshire who tries to keep his attitude as level as his blood sugar. But that attitude was seriously rocked last spring when the U.S. Ski team cut him.
FREEMAN: They said that my trajectory was not what they were looking for, that I had been skiing at kind of a plateaued level. I couldn't really argue with that except I thought my plateau was pretty high.
GOLDMAN: Domestically, it was. Last April, he won the latest of his 16 national titles. But a spokesman for the U.S. Ski Team, which declined an interview request, says criteria for team selection are based on international results, including a world cup overall ranking in the top 50. In 2013, Freeman ranked 75th; in 2012, 86th. The team felt its limited funds would be better spent elsewhere.
Freeman says as a result, he lost tens of thousands of dollars of support and, perhaps more importantly, health insurance.
FREEMAN: There was a lot of stress and a little bit of a steep learning curve this last year, trying to figure out how I was going to pay for certain things. And what I was going to do for health insurance once my COBRA ran out.
GOLDMAN: Personal savings and sponsorships helped make up the deficit. Then a couple of months ago, more help arrived.
CHRIS SUNUNU: This is a guy that has put himself on the line for the United States year after year. And to be dumped like that just didn't seem right.
GOLDMAN: So Chris Sununu, co-owner of Waterville Valley Ski Resort in New Hampshire, offered local hero Kris Freeman a job - teaching racing clinics in exchange for a little stipend and health coverage.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And Kris Freeman out of Maine, powering his way towards the finish. What a phenomenal race.
GOLDMAN: After two third-place finishes at this month's national championships, Freeman says he's 99 percent sure he'll be named to the U.S. Olympic team. If he is, he'll still represent the U.S., even though he won't be a member of the U.S. Ski Team. But Freeman says that won't give him any extra competitive drive in Sochi. He simply wants his best Olympic performance yet, which Freeman believes, is ahead of him.
Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.