Bill Carlson. The Man. The Myth. The Legend.
Editor’s Note: Jesse Was Here—A Program of Beyond Type 1 was inspired by Michelle (Alswager) Bauer’s experience after her son Jesse’s death. Michelle’s unwavering commitment to the type 1 diabetes community + her support for others is the basis for this program supporting + building community for those who have lost someone to type 1.
That title might seem extreme, but as someone who has been part of the quirky life of one California resident who answers to Billy Carlson, it about sums him up. In fact I stole those words from Bill’s good friend, Peter Nerothin. Anyone who knows Bill personally quickly smiles at the fact that he uses the top 10 “70s terms like nobody’s business.” It’s pretty groovy!
“My name is Bill Carlson—triathlete, and physical therapist. I also happen to be a person with diabetes.” Pause. “Today.” A quote from Bill that really embodies what he thinks—in my opinion—of this whole thing called type 1 diabetes. Embracing a proper diet and a whole lot of exercise to manage his diabetes, Bill lives his life with an attitude that while he has diabetes today, in his heart he holds a belief that one day it will not be part of his life. He takes care of it as if “today” is the day to do it.
His story begins—at least my version of his story (I will refrain from made up things like unicorns and 10 foot waves we swam in)—in 1983 when then 23-year-old Billy took on IRONMAN Kona. The history of IRONMAN started during an awards banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club, John Collins, a Naval Officer stationed in Hawaii, and his wife Judy, began playing with the idea of combining the three toughest endurance races on the island into one race. They decided to issue a challenge to see who the toughest athletes were: swimmers, bikers, or runners. On February 18, 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the first-ever IRONMAN challenge.
In 1983 Bill took on this endurance test—a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and finished up with a 26.2 marathon. So rare was his story that it caught the eye of ABC Wide World of Sports. Bill can be seen in a Youtube video on that amazing day as he became the first person with type 1 diabetes ever to finish an IRONMAN all while you listen to the famous voice of Al Michaels doing the interview.
Our lives were not to cross paths until the fall of 2007. I had completed my first IRONMAN race myself in 2006 at IRONMAN Wisconsin and had trained with someone with type 1 diabetes. I asked him during our training if he knew how many people had done the race with type 1 diabetes (T1D). His answer, “Not sure. I’d say I’m one of six.” That just wasn’t good enough for me. Over lunch one day with a gentleman I had just met through a well-known device company, I came up with the idea of filming a documentary. Now, did I have any business doing a documentary? Heck, no. But the universe thought otherwise and on that very day a man walked into my office and told me that his daughter was recently diagnosed. As we chatted I told him about my crazy idea and as I watched the light bulb glow above his head he smiled and said, “I film documentaries.”
That was one crazy year of getting 12 people with type 1 diabetes from all over the US to put together The Science of Inspiration—Diabetes and Sports (otherwise known as Triabetes). Bill Carlson would become one of the driving forces of that team and one of the main characters in the documentary.
As years moved on we stayed in touch, but in 2015 when I decided to race again in Wisconsin after an almost 10 year hiatus, I dragged Bill along for the ride. Or maybe more like he dragged me—along with 62 other athletes to do the race for Riding On Insulin, a nonprofit organization that puts on ski/snowboard and mountain bike camps for kids with type 1 diabetes in the US, Canada, New Zealand and now Australia. They formed the ROI Endurance Team boasting 36 athletes on the team with T1D.
In true color Bill not only finished that race, but he qualified for the IRONMAN World Championships by placing third in his age division. He would then embark on yet another year of training for the Big Dance to take place on this Saturday, October 8th in Hawaii. In fact you may be reading this, eating your breakfast or maybe at your son’s baseball game or eating dinner later —but chances are Bill has been out racing while you’ve done all three of those things today. It’s a long, challenging and sometimes excruciating day for the athlete. Today it has been 33 years since Mr. Carlson set foot on the IRONMAN Kona starting line.
All of us at Riding On Insulin will be following along all day waiting for their friend and teammate to cross that IRONMAN finish line wearing Bib #398. We’ll be thinking of him as he thinks about his son’s diagnosis of T1D in 2007. And we’ll be thinking of him as he thinks of his wife, Suzanne, who battles Hodgkins Lymphoma back home.
In Bill’s own words from 2007, “Old age and treachery, will trump skill.” Not today, Bill. Not today. Today you will put all of your skills out there on the starting line—for your son Clayton, your wife “Momma Suzi,” for your entire ROI Endurance Team teammates and for every other person with type 1 diabetes who aspires to live a better life through exercise and sports. Go get ‘em, tiger.
To follow Bill on race day, check in on Twitter @type1bill or @ridingoninsulin. Follow Bib #398 Live HERE.
Read Michelle Bauer (Alswager) story Ironman—A Woman’s Continued Advocacy for Her Son.