Simon Bennett hasn’t been slowed by type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed at age 13, he’s been going fast ever since.
Simon Bennett has accomplished many things in his 27 years. As a typically humble Australian, he won't tell you that overcoming type 1 diabetes has been the greatest of his achievements, but living (and thriving) with the disease has certainly led to a number of exploits, both on and off the bike. A latecomer to the professional peloton at age 24, Bennett is in only his third year of elite racing on the bike. In this short time he has contributed to a record-setting Race Across America (RAAM) and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, applying his own lessons learned to educating the public and providing outreach on the subject of diabetes.
A type 1 diabetic since his early teens, Bennett has shown others that dealing with disease as an athlete is a selfless endeavor, channeling his energy to outreach and education as much as his own racing performance.
"Everything is always doable," he said, as if divulging his personal slogan. "I guess that’s how you have to look at it. This isn’t going to control me. I’m going to control it. I never let it slow me down.”
Bennett swam competitively at the elite level for many years before moving into coaching for both swimmers and triathletes. He used training as just one in a series of tools to keep his life in balance.
"Swimming took nine workouts a week and kept me off the streets," he said of his early years with diabetes. "We trained in the mornings and at night and that got me into a routine."
Coaching was an obvious vocation for Bennett, who clearly enjoys helping others whether in competition or in daily life. For a diabetic, however, there is a certain imperative to being self-centered. Bennett learned this lesson several years ago when a training ride spill sent him to the pavement, shattering his collarbone.
"I hit a big rock,” Bennett said, offering a perfectly logical explanation for his crash, "but if I hadn’t had low blood sugar, I might have held onto the handlebars."
The injury led to what in hindsight seems an obvious realization.
"That was a stage when I wasn’t looking after my diabetes so well," he admitted. "When I was coaching, I was more worried about the people I was coaching and I wasn’t taking care of myself."
The broken collarbone was not only a painful wake-up call; it ultimately set Bennett on new path to elite level racing. Nursing his injury, Bennett had taken temporary residence with his parents after his injury and during that time began going on rides with his father. Their outings became more regular, his paceline skills improved during group rides, and Bennett was on his way, picking up new mentors and honing his speed and bike handling.
For a diabetic, becoming a professional athlete involves careful coordination between training and managing the disease. Bennett’s physical talents helped accelerate his entry into elite racing, but he still needed help figuring out how to keep his body running as he placed more and more demands on his system. Eventually, he found guidance from a number of people in the diabetes community who helped him with his blood sugar.
By 2008, Bennett had been speaking with Phil Southerland, the founder of Team Type 1. Southerland was instrumental in giving Bennett the guidance he needed to hone his physical talents alongside his day-to-day management of the disease in order to make the jump to professional racing. When Bennett's racing results were showing sufficient promise, Southerland offered him a ride with the team at the Herald Sun Tour in Australia.
It was at the Sun Tour that Bennett met then team director Ed Beamon and got the nod to race full-time in the U.S. with TT1. Bennett didn't attend the team's training camp in 2009, but was simply told to come to the USA when he was ready. He landed with the TT1 development team, based in Richmond, Virginia, and it wasn't long before Bennett was asked to join Team Type 1 for the Race Across America. He and the team set the record time for the eight-person team competition, crossing the country in 5 days, 9 hours and 5 minutes, and doing their part to raise diabetes awareness along the way.
Bennett eventually moved to a full pro season with Team Type 1 in 2010. He benefitted from a team highly structured to meet the needs of athletes with type 1 diabetes, which allowed him to continually monitor and refine his management of the disease both in and out of competition. Along the way, he grew more involved in public speaking and outreach to school children and fellow diabetics.
Bennett saw the potential for his own expanded outreach roles during his time with Team Type 1. Team founder Southerland is well known as a relentless advocate and speaker on behalf of the diabetic community and Bennett is quick to acknowledge that he is "the best cheerleader in the world".
Using his time with Team Type 1 as a springboard, Bennett not only continued his outreach to diabetics and school children, he has taken up the cause of using bikes to empower Third World nations to improve mobility and access to healthcare and other vital services. He joined South Carolina-based Team Globalbike in 2011, almost as a way to up the ante of his own efforts in outreach.
"Motivation is one step," he said, "but the next step is identifying how you can really help those people in need. I wanted to give kids the tools to make that next step, and teach them how to use those tools."
Naturally, leaving the one team that caters so intensely to diabetic cyclists might seem an odd decision. Did he not have his dream job?
"Not being part of Team Type 1 makes it harder now," he conceded. "I can't test as often as I want. I don't have a continuous glucose monitor like those guys have, where you can monitor your blood sugar every minute of the day.”
“But what I do now is reality," he insisted. "Most people can only test so many times per day. For some people it's only twice or three times a day. I prefer to test seven or eight times each day."
When Bennett joined Team Globalbike, he found a perfect match for his combination of racing and humanitarian efforts. The team is a marketing tool for the non-profit Globalbike, Inc., an organization dedicated to providing bicycles and ongoing assistance to impoverished communities in the Third World. Globalbike stresses the transformative power of the bicycle as an efficient, sustainable tool to improve mobility and access to drinking water, healthcare, and other basic needs.
Shortly after joining the team, Bennett found himself en route to Africa to take part in an effort dubbed "Ride. Climb. Transform."—a campaign launched in February 2010 to donate bicycles to youth and youth mentors in Nairobi and Kenya. Through over 400 kilometers of riding, Bennett joined Globalbike as the organization camped in villages and distributed bikes to local communities. After the ride, the group climbed to the "roof of Africa," Mount Kilimanjaro.
Bennett not only successfully completed the grueling climb to Kilimanjaro's peak, he set a new record for a type 1 diabetic by reaching the top in less than four days. Kilimanjaro is an "easy" climb in terms of terrain, but reaching an altitude of 23,000 feet is extreme, to say the least.
"They call it the mother of all hangovers," Bennett joked. He battled sickness, fierce headaches, and difficulties eating and drinking, not to mention the bitter cold. These were conditions tough for any human, let alone a diabetic for whom careful monitoring of food intake is paramount. On the final day of the climb, Bennett wasn’t eating or drinking, unable to keep food down.
"Once we got to the top, I sat down and tested my blood sugar,” he remembered. “Some people couldn't go on; I had my coat pulled down so far I could only see my guide's feet. We had a guy get taken down with chest pains. Others couldn't make it because they kept throwing up."
Bennett did make it, and while he doesn't feel the need to tackle Kilimanjaro again, he will surely return to Africa to continue Globalbike's efforts. For 2012 there is talk of circumnavigating the mountain on bikes, visiting local communities along the way.
"I had the pleasure of summiting 'Kili' alongside Simon," explained Globalbike's president and co-founder, Curt McPhail. "When we got to the summit crater, Gilman's Point, I was really struggling. Simon, as he did throughout the trip, calmly encouraged me to keep pushing forward. When it was clear that I needed to descend, Simon acknowledged my achievement and moved on to make it to Uhuru Peak."
The nexus of Bennett's cycling and diabetes outreach efforts is reached through Globalbike's goal of equipping local aid programs with bikes, as well as using contacts in the diabetes and healthcare community to deliver insulin to impoverished communities.
"What's tricky is finding the connections to get insulin into the country,” he explained. “Being able to go over there to source it and see what was going on, I was able to establish a secure connection."
"You have to be sure that you've got teams in place to be sure it will work when you leave,” he added.
Ultimately, for Simon Bennett, life with diabetes all comes back to his own experiences and the lessons he seeks to pass along to others, whether they are athletes or sixth-graders. He first tackled the disease as a thirteen-year old and has continued to do so, ticking off some sizable feats along the way. But as any diabetic will tell you, the biggest battle is often committing to the simple routines.
"A lot of it gets back to daily life," he admitted. "Controlling blood sugar, eating healthy foods, and so on. Diabetes teaches you to eat healthy."
For all he has accomplished on and off the bike, Bennett is not big on role models, and in typical Aussie fashion, he seems more willing to boast—if you can call it that—about his humanitarian work than his RAAM record with Team Type 1.
"I don't really look up to anyone," he said bluntly. "Only my parents, really. I know that anything is doable. Always knew I could make that next step to make top level."