Fencing, Diabetes, and the Bout Against COVID-19: An Interview with Gabrielle, TT1 Ambassador

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Gabrielle Zegers,, Duke University, Women's Fencing
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Today, Team Type 1 is the world’s largest diabetes and sports organization with more than 170 athletes with type 1 diabetes. Their programs focus on affordable access to diabetes medication and care all over the globe.

A cornerstone initiative, the Global Ambassador Scholarship Program, awards college scholarships to US-based student-athletes with diabetes attending and playing a sport for an NCAA or NAIA school. The funds awarded offset the financial burden diabetes places on families and allows students to focus on what’s important – their health and their education. Beginning in 2020, TT1 will focus its efforts on affordable access to diabetes care in the States. By working with industry, government, patients, and other key stakeholders, TT1 will fight to make insulin affordable to everyone who needs it to live.

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fencing meme
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Despite this meme arguing that fencing is the perfect sport for our current situation, trying to train and participate in fencing has been far from ideal. Fencing practices require participants to be in close quarters (most fencing gyms are small!) and to ideally be in some physical contact during drills and warm-ups. This meant that when Duke University canceled athletic events, fencers had to go home. When we went home, our fencing clubs (declared non-essential) could no longer hold practices. COVID-19 also meant that we had to cancel our end-of-year events and gatherings which helped us reflect on the season, reinforce our camaraderie as a team, and finalize our yearly goals as athletes. Several of us qualified for the NCAA championships this season, and were disappointed when the fencing meet got cancelled. Our annual celebration of the season and sendoff for our seniors was also cancelled, which was disappointing for our beloved graduating teammates who had dedicated four years to our athletic success and personal growth.

Personally, the pandemic has presented several physical and emotional challenges. I was pulled out of school right after North Carolina declared a state of emergency, and was only two weeks into recovery from a procedure which placed me under strict physical limitations. Now, I have been recovering from a surgery, but am unable to engage in most of the at-home workouts with my local fencing club via Zoom. From home, it can be difficult to see and communicate with my local diabetes care team, which has made adjusting my blood sugars and nutrition during a lack of normal exercise frustrating and difficult.

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"These moments have prompted me to reflect on why I enjoy fencing: not simply as another block of a time in my busy schedule, but as something fun, healthy, and opportunistic for connecting with others."

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Gabrielle Zegers headshot
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However, despite these challenges there are many ways in which my teammates and I have been able to thrive as athletes. I have had time during recovery to focus more on the mentality with which I approach fencing and the chance to bond with my teammates over group Zoom calls. We also organized commemorative videos and gifts for our graduating teammates through Venmo, GroupMe, and Zoom. Our team captains have been checking in with and encouraging us. The women’s fencing team plans to have more Zoom meetings and online workouts during the summer. Also, the fencing coaches and trainers, nutritionists, academic advisors, sports psychologists, and sports psychiatrists who work with my team have also kept regular contact with us through email. Overall, Duke University Athletics and the fencing team has helped us to feel like we are a part of the team even when we are far away.

The encouragement has not stopped even while I am still recovering. My family and I have befriended a wound-care nurse who has been helping me to heal. My appointments with her have been a weekly outing and social time for my mother and I. I have also had several phone appointments with my care team at home to improve my blood sugar, order a new pump and meter, and brainstorm how I can keep physically active even when at home. In terms of athletics, I am still able to stay engaged with my sport and people in it. Though I cannot fully participate in the four days of physical conditioning per week with my local fencing club via Zoom, I am able to engage with these practices during the two days per week spent on mentality and fencing strategy. These moments have prompted me to reflect on why I enjoy fencing: not simply as another block of a time in my busy schedule, but as something fun, healthy, and opportunistic for connecting with others. I am thankful for the chance to focus on the big questions around my involvement in fencing, with the Duke fencing team, and managing my physical and mental health.