My Extra Step to a Championship
- by Austin "Gus" Ellis, '12 Political Science Stanford Men's Volleyball
The day that the Stanford Men’s Volleyball team played for the National Championship, it was almost impossible to hear Coach Kosty’s directions over the 6,635 screaming fans that filled Maples Pavilion. Camera crews, reporters, and sportscasters from ESPN surrounded the court. Just beyond the service line, in plain view, stood the NCAA trophy. The air in the stadium was permeated by the scent of plastic coming from the official championship flooring. Arriving at this moment had been my greatest dream since I began playing volleyball in sixth grade. But whether it’s a national championship or a practice scrimmage, I focus on the same two things during every match: playing my best and monitoring my blood sugar.
When I was one year old, I was diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes. During elementary school, my parents played a large role in managing my condition. I would go to the nurse’s office every day before lunch to test my blood sugar. I would then relay the information to my mom and she would tell me what to do. By the time I was in middle school, I started to do most of the monitoring myself. As I began to grab the reins, I became increasingly aware of what my classmates said about me, “Why do you have to give yourself a shot? Why do you have to make your fingers bleed? What’s wrong with you?” Although diabetes is a common disease, it is often managed discreetly. However, a Division I athlete with diabetes doesn’t get much privacy.
In practice and in games, I am constantly hustling to the sideline to test my blood and give myself an injection. Intense physical activity has a powerful effect on blood sugar levels, which in turn affects endurance, coordination, and long-term health. So, needless to say, playing Division I volleyball at Stanford adds an extra variable to managing my diabetes. Although diabetes makes a career in volleyball slightly more difficult, it also makes it exponentially more meaningful. On top of everything that competition means for the average student-athlete, it means even more for those who maybe shouldn’t be competing in the first place. When I succeed in my athletic endeavors, I’m not only validating my own efforts, I’m validating the efforts of my mother and father, my coaches, my trainers, my doctors, and everyone else who supports me in pursuing my dream of high level competition.
As much as it pains me to have this disease, it almost certainly pains my parents more. Trusting your diabetic child to care for his condition is difficult enough, but trusting him to manage it while being a full-time student-athlete far from home is nerve-wracking. Luckily for my parents, and me, they are not the only people who provide support. Dr. Bruce Buckingham diagnosed me 20 years ago in Southern California, and, by a stroke of luck, he was transferred over to Stanford Hospital and remains my doctor to this very day. Throughout the years, he and his family have formed a tight bond with mine. In fact, when my parents come to Stanford to see my games, Dr. Buckingham often attends and joins the family for dinner afterwards.
My performance on the court is due not only to the network of people who have supported me, but also to the athletes who preceded me and learned to play and compete despite medical difficulties. The most influential of these athletes, to me, is Kevin Hansen. He is a type one diabetic who played volleyball here at Stanford, graduating in 2004. Kevin has been a role model for me since I began playing volleyball; he and I played at the same high school, on the same club team, we both played for the youth and junior national teams, and both continued our careers at Stanford. After graduating as a First Team All American, Kevin went on to play for the Senior National Team and win an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. Kevin currently plays for a professional team in Russia. Knowing what Kevin has achieved despite our shared obstacle has been a great source of inspiration for me.
At the Final Four banquet the night before the NCAA competition began, Kevin delivered a speech to the participating teams. He spoke on a number of topics relevant to the audience of collegiate athletes. He told us what it was like to represent the United States abroad, what it was like to play in a professional league, and the role that his career as a student-athlete has played in shaping his present day life. The constant interruption of applause made it clear that the audience was moved by Kevin’s words. Only once did he mention that he had diabetes, stating, “When I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that athletics would be difficult.” That single statement gave me a deep insight into what having diabetes means to Kevin; it is just another challenge that he faces when pursuing athletic success, no different than any other. Kevin’s attitude has inspired me to improve my own. Just like lifting weights, conditioning, and eating properly, managing my diabetes is something I do to maximize my potential.
In the same way that Kevin has inspired me, I hope to inspire others. During my high school career, I was fortunate to be on a successful team. Through articles written about my team, it was communicated to the local community that I have diabetes. After this information was spread, a few parents with diabetic children began contacting me, asking if I could speak with their kids after my games. I was honored to oblige. Most of the children that I spoke with were struggling to manage their diabetes; many were adolescents who didn’t like to test their blood sugars or give themselves injections in front of friends. My openness about the fact that I have diabetes struck a chord with them. I got the sense that, to them, suddenly diabetes wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. What’s more, the fact that I could have it and still be a successful athlete was, in their eyes, kind of cool. From the thoughtful congratulations and heartfelt thanks that both the children and their parents communicated to me after these encounters, I knew that I had made a difference.
When the final point was scored, the team stormed the court. We huddled in one tight mass, each of us reaching up to touch our National Championship trophy. As we proceeded to cut the net to pieces for keepsakes, I paused to take in the scene: “All Right Now” was blaring from the corner of the stadium, the student section, dressed in every type of costume imaginable, made its way past security and formed a human tunnel for the players to run through, the rest of the crowd was still on their feet, cheering so loudly it was almost impossible to hear the “We did it”s and “I love you”s. I saw my family standing together behind a “Go Stanford!” banner that my parents had made. I couldn’t help but tear up as the adrenaline subsided, and the realization of what had just happened began to settle in. Thousands of people supported the Cardinal that day and very few of them knew, or will ever know, that I am a diabetic. But they know that I am a champion.
Austin “Gus” Ellis, ’12, is a junior middle blocker on the Stanford men’s volleyball team. Ellis played a key role in helping the men’s volleyball team complete their “worst to first” journey and capture the 2010 NCAA Championship. His nickname “Gus” was started by his grandmother, who used to call him “Guzzling Gus” as a child in reference to his constant thirst. The habitual thirst shown by “Gus” was a preliminary indicator of his diabetes condition and helped trigger its eventual diagnosis.