Learning about managing T1D by himself, this MMA fighter now works to improve awareness of the disease
Shawn Wicks was an elite athlete who held his health in high-regard, trained vigorously, and competed as an MMA fighter training in Muay Thai kickboxing, but he felt something was off – his feet were always sore and he was exhausted all of the time.
“I didn’t have the energy to train, I recall days sneaking out of the gym to drink an espresso so I could finish an hour-long workout… I just attributed it to work and stress.”
When Shawn visited his general practitioner (GP), he was told he had a high fasting blood sugar. He was promptly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and medicated accordingly, but his symptoms persisted. After repeated visits with his GP, he was eventually prescribed insulin and diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).
He was 29-years old.
With no immediate access to an endocrinologist, Shawn had to teach himself how to inject insulin and learn in real-time how his body reacted to it.
“I remember watching YouTube videos on how to inject and just giving myself little bits at a time so I could figure out what it was doing to me and how much I actually needed,” Shawn said in a conversation with us.
Fast-forward to today, and Shawn still competes as an MMA fighter while educating people living with diabetes on managing their glucose levels through exercise and diet.
“Being diagnosed was the scariest thing in my life,” he added. “I think it’s really important that people understand it takes work, but it can be manageable. T1D made me take control of my life and made me learn what I could do, and I want to inspire other people to take control of their life.”
Born in Newfoundland, Shawn’s journey led him across the country to British Columbia where he trains with Universal MMA in North Vancouver, but his fight with T1D began long before his arrival. He credits his fiancé with the perspective he needed to get help.
“Looking back now, I hadn’t been well for a few years. It wasn’t until I was in a relationship with someone who saw my behavior every day to tell me something was wrong. I had spiraled into a place where I didn’t realize my blood sugars were affecting my mental and physical health.”
It was a long road for Shawn to come to terms with it.
“As an athlete, I was someone promoting health. I didn’t understand [T1D], I was ashamed of it, I didn’t know if it was something I did. As I started learning more about nutrition and how to get a handle on it, I refocused my life to be an advocate and educate people about T1D… Now, I am proud of it.”
When you are routinely squaring off with 215-pound men trained in martial arts, managing type 1 diabetes on top of the task at hand is a major hurdle, but Shawn has mastered managing his blood sugars when he hits the octagon. He says he has never suffered a low during a fight.
“It’s tough because before a fight you feel adrenaline, you might get shaky and your hands start to sweat and it’s hard to tell whether it’s adrenaline or a low since the symptoms for me are the same,” Shawn said.
When asked if his team understands his T1D, he laughs as he remembers his coach’s reaction to one of the first times he went low during training and stopped to eat glucose tablets.
“My coach is really a suck-it-up type of guy, and I remember him looking up at me saying, ‘Come on man, what are you doing? Sitting there eating candy?’”, he recalled.
Shawn credits them for coming a long way. Now all he needs to do is put his hand up and his coach immediately knows what’s up.
Being diagnosed as an adult, Shawn distinctly remembers his life before T1D. He describes the contrast between then and now like “playing a video game on expert mode.” Everything is tougher and the learning curve is steep, and much of what you learn is through the mistakes you make…
Like when Shawn accidentally gave himself 50-units of fast-acting insulin before going to the gym after mistaking it for his long-lasting insulin.
“I have 2 pens, one for my fast-acting and one for my long-lasting, I accidently put the fast-acting insulin into the pen that I normally keep my long-lasting in. I injected and went to the gym. I was on the stair climber when I had this flashback of what I’d done and I was out of there faster than the Roadrunner. My cupboards were empty, so luckily the store in my building was open, and I bought apple juice and 2-liters of pop and went to work on them until I could get myself to the grocery store,” Shawn said.
Shawn embraces a live and learn attitude, but every lesson amounts to a better understanding of himself and how he manages his T1D.
As a participant in the Sun Life Walk to Cure Diabetes for JDRF, Shawn credits the event as an incredible vehicle to drive awareness, accelerate T1D research, and unify the T1D community. “I feel like I’m really a part of something special through JDRF and the work that I do. It’s amazing being around people I can have open and honest conversations about living with T1D.”
Shawn is also fascinated with the research that JDRF funds, "I want to find out why and at what point the immune system starts attacking insulin producing cells; that to me is most important. I am also really excited about islet cell transplants; I would love to see a successful way to encapsulate them without the body rejecting them.”
By supporting the Walk, Shawn hopes his story can reinforce the critical awareness that the event brings to T1D and amplify JDRF’s mission. “I think the awareness is crucial; no one should live with the stigma or feel ashamed of having T1D. Awareness has to be a priority, but it’s empowering to know there are so many people working on a cure and out there helping each other to living with it. JDRF does an incredible job of helping people see that.”
To learn more about Shawn Wicks, follow his journey as a T1D MMA fighter at: