Surfing on Insulin


Since I was 12 years old, surfing has been my fiercest passion. One summer, I found my uncle’s old board — which was shaped in the ’60s — collecting dust in the rafters of the family beach house. I drug it to the beach, struggled out into the surf and caught my first wave. I was immediately hooked. From then on I was in the water as much as possible, whether the waves were six feet or six inches there I was, at home in the arms of mother ocean. I would spend hours a day out there, often skipping meals and worrying my parents sick. As I progressed in my abilities I began to travel to chase bigger and better waves. I was the happiest kid in the world as long as I had a board and a wave to ride.

Fast forward to my 22nd birthday, when my life changed forever. I was rushed to the ER, my blood sugar at 511mg/dL and my A1C was up to 11.2%. The doctors told me I had Type 1 diabetes. I was so confused, how and why did this happen to me? How will this affect my life? But most importantly how will this affect my surfing? The doctors assured me that I would be fine and back in the water in no time. This gave me hope and I geared up to take on T1D with the same vigor and spirit I put into surfing.

My first session back in the water after diagnosis was discouraging. My wetsuit didn’t fit because of how much weight I’d lost, I had next to zero energy and my balance was totally out of whack. I felt like that 12-year-old on his uncle’s old board all over again. When I got out of the water my sugar was 57. I definitely had my work cut out for me to regain my strength and figure out how to properly manage my diabetes while surfing.


I was lucky enough to have an endocrinologist that worked with Type 1 diabetic athletes at the University of Texas. He advised I get on an insulin pump and CGM to help me better understand carb counting, insulin dosage and how diet and exercise affect blood sugar. We devised a plan to keep my sugar up during long sessions. I would eat a carb-heavy meal before paddling out without bolusing and halve my basal rate. I began to feel more confident in my level of control and regained my strength and balance in the water. There was only one problem, my pump and CGM were not big surfing fans.

I tried everything I could think of to maintain use of my pump and CGM while surfing. I would wrap tape around my sensor and insulin pod to keep them from falling off in the water. I tried parking my car as close to the water as I could to keep my sensor in range of the CGM receiver. I wore pods and sensors on my arms instead of my stomach so I could lay on the board. Despite my efforts I constantly ran into issues. Pods would lose their adhesive in the water or be ripped off from paddling. CGM sensors would fail from being out of range for too long. After months of doing my best to make the pump and CGM work in the water and tons of wasted pods and sensors, I decided I’d had enough and switched back to multiple daily injections, against the advice of my parents and medical team.

While on the pump and CGM I was able to lower my A1C down to 6.2%. After six months on multiple daily injections with no CGM it shot up to 7.6%! Needless to say the pump and CGM were a critical part of the solid control I had developed. Now I had to adjust my life again, but if I wanted the freedom of surfing without pump and CGM issues, I had to stay strong and relearn how to manage my diabetes. I completely changed my diet and buckled down on carb counting. It took some time but I regained control of my blood sugar.


I felt like my old self in the water again. My energy levels were back to normal and I no longer had to cut sessions short due to a pod or sensor coming off. I still have to carefully carb load and adjust insulin doses before surfing but that’s just part of life now. Honestly, it makes me appreciate surfing even more. Diabetes reminds us that life is not promised, that every moment and every wave should be cherished.

I know taking myself off of the pump and CGM is not highly advised, and I would never recommend anyone do the same, but for now I’m choosing to live my life on my terms and handle my diabetes my way. We all need to find our own way to deal with our disease that best allows us to follow our passions. There is no one size fits all in this fight.

Just as there are high tides and low tides, diabetes is full of highs and lows, peaks and valleys. But no matter the obstacle in front of you it is possible to overcome and continue chasing your passion.

Zach Toth

Zach Toth is a wanderlusting surf bum bent on trotting the globe and chasing waves despite having Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed in 2013 at 22 he has refused to let T1D slow him down.