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PBA Bowler Ryan Shafer Keeps His Shot, and His Illness, Under Control | Health

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PBA Bowler Ryan Shafer Keeps His Shot, and His Illness, Under Control
PBA Bowler Ryan Shafer Keeps His Shot, and His Illness, Under Control

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. - As a professional bowler, Ryan Shafer has put together some impressive credentials: 44 career PBA 300 games, four PBA Tour titles and 14 regional titles, PBA Rookie of the Year in 1987, recipient of the Steve Nagy Sportsmanship Award in 2009, 30th PBA member to reach the $1 million mark in career earnings.

But you probably didn’t know that the Horseheads, N.Y., native also suffers from the life-threatening chronic illness type 1 diabetes. With this form of diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone that’s needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into the energy needed for daily life. Only 5 percent of people with diabetes have this form of the disease. 

Shafer and his colleagues will be in Cheektowaga March 2-6 for the Mark Roth Plastic Ball Championship at AMF Thruway Lanes. I was able to interview him prior to his Western New York visit to talk about his career, and more importantly, how he handles the rigors of life on the road while keeping his illness under control. Our question-and-answer session follows:

What is it about bowling that makes it appeals to all, even those dealing with disabilities?

Bowling is something you can enjoy your entire life. Any day you walk into a bowling center, you will see children as young as 2 or 3 years old bowling with bumpers and never wanting to leave. You could also see a league of senior citizens bowling right next to those children. It is also a family oriented sport because people of all ages and physical abilities can participate. Plus, there's nothing like rolling the ball down the lane and experiencing the thrill of knocking down all 10 pins.   

How old were you when you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and how does that impact your life on a daily basis?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes my second year of college when I was 19. I have been diabetic for 25 years and I guess you could say I am a creature of habit. I try to make my life easier and more manageable by following a routine. I try to eat at the same times every day, and I frequent the same restaurants when I travel not only because I enjoy the food, but because I am familiar with the menu and able to manage my blood glucose levels easier. That aspect of my routine is not as important as it used to be since I have been using an Animas insulin pump. My glucometer has a food catalog programmed with all the popular chain restaurants so I know how many carbohydrates are in the dishes I order. This info is then easily transferred to my pump which then supplies my body with the appropriate amount of insulin. 

Exercise has also become an important part of my life. When I am home, I frequent the gym four times a week. Balancing a good diet with routine exercise helps me maintain healthy blood glucose levels.

As a professional athlete who’s constantly on the road, what extra precaution must you take concerning your illness?

I was already a diabetic when I became a professional bowler so I have never known any different. I always have glucose tablets, my meter and my pump supplies with me when I travel. Life with the pump has definitely made travel much easier because you don't have to “chase shots” with food. My pump supplies me with a basal rate that keeps my blood sugars level, so I am not forced to eat at inconvenient times. Low blood sugars are far less frequent since I've worn the pump.

Are there people associated with the PBA Tour who not only know about your health situation, but know what to do should you become ill?

I would guess everyone on tour knows I am diabetic because my pump is visible on my belt. I was very private about my condition until I began wearing the pump, but I soon realized I could do some good if I became an advocate for using the pump and helping diabetics of all ages realize they can live their life as they wish if they control their diabetes. My roommate, Eugene McCune, knows how to handle any emergency that might arise.

How can you use your status as a professional athlete to bring attention to diabetes awareness?

I have two platforms to raise awareness for diabetes. Every week I compete in a pro-am event in which I bowl alongside amateurs for fun. My pump is visible and I have the Animas logo on my jersey. I am constantly approached by fellow diabetics asking questions about how I handle my diabetes while competing at the highest level of my sport. Also, if I bowl well enough, I get to compete on ESPN and Randy Pedersen and Rob Stone usually mention my circumstances during the telecast. I have also raised money for diabetes research at a local regional bowling tournament in my area.

You’ll be participating in a PBA event March 2-6 in Western New York, an area where diabetes is widespread. What advice can you offer to the people of this community regarding diabetes awareness?

People assume diabetes means you can't eat sugar, which isn't true. It is so much more than that. People with diabetes are more susceptible to heart disease, high blood pressure, poor circulation, stroke and many other health issues if they do not control their blood sugar. It is also a fact that there are millions of people who have diabetes that don't know it and are therefore at risk for these health issues. Those at risk can take a simple blood test known as A1C to determine if they are diabetic. People who are overweight or have a history of diabetes in their family are generally at risk.

What are your future goals, both personally and professionally?

I would like to continue my career for as long as I am successful. I am also interested in becoming an owner of a bowling center in my area. Finally, I embrace the challenge of being an advocate for diabetes awareness and someone who diabetics of all ages can look toward for the inspiration to pursue their dreams. 

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