AT 16, biathlete Stuart Harden was a prodigy. Dominant in Canada, he matched future world cup athletes Macx Davies and Christian Gow stride for stride on the national stage.
He won four medals at the 2011 Canada Winter Games in the junior men division, and internationally, success came quickly. At the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Harden had the race of his young career, besting the field by more than 40 seconds in the biathlon pursuit.
But in the excitement of the moment, Harden forgot to ski his only penalty lap, and was assessed a two minute penalty, pushing him back to seventh. He still gets teased about it today.
“Everybody makes fun of me anyways, so it’s hard not to laugh at it,” Harden said.
Instead of continued ascension of Biathlon Canada’s team ranking, though, what followed was four years marred by sickness and illness, culminating with a Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis on April 28, 2015.
“Ever since I turned 18, it’s been more of a struggle. It’s funny looking back. When I was in high school at the National Sports School in Calgary, I was surrounded by a lot of athletes in sports like alpine, freestyle or swimming, and they had to deal with a lot of injuries. I didn’t understand that side of the sport. I feel now that injury and illness has dictated my sports career so far,” Harden said.
In many ways, Harden’s biathlon career has always been atypical.
Growing up with his twin brother surrounded by desert in the United Arab Emirates, he would trek through the sand dunes with an air rifle taking target practice. When the family moved to Calgary when Harden was 10, his parents thought biathlon might be a good fit – Harden loved snow and was a good shot for his age. He eventually joined the Rocky Mountain Racers and, under the tutelage of John Jaques, blossomed as an athlete.
Four years later, Harden stares out the window of a Canmore coffee shop in early December, pricking his finger with a needle. He recalls those trips to world juniors in a matter of fact manner.
“I was really looking forward to the next year when I would be at the top end of the youth category, and moving on to junior. Unfortunately, that’s the most success I’ve had. It was limited to when I was 16-17. I am now 21 and a first year senior.”
After the 2013 world junior championships in Austria, Harden’s health problems began to manifest. He suffering from stomach problems and saw his results slip. He went to Norway after the races to train, but ended up stuck in his room for much of the camp. Things only got worse when he returned to Canada.
“My stomach problems evolved into a bigger concern when I started having trouble breathing. That was the year everything started,” Harden said.
Although his stomach and breathing issues were a concern, he kept training. A knee injury ended his chances of competing at world juniors in 2014, and masked the problems. In 2015, he again qualified to ski for Canada at the world championships, but this time his body said enough.
“I first had a run-in with my typical health issues in Belarus, at world championships. I got a cold that was serious enough I couldn’t race. I came home and it wasn’t until biathlon nationals in Hinton that I started recognizing what I would learn were classic, telltale signs of diabetes,” Harden said.
It started with thirst and frequent urination, and quickly deteriorated. He was experiencing extreme thirst and lost 20 pounds in two weeks. His vision blurred considerably, to the point he needed to change his prescription contacts and glasses. His mother told him to Google diabetes symptoms.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew I had diabetes. I remember the feeling. It was surreal.”
Type 1 diabetes is a disease in which the pancreas does not produce insulin. Insulin regulates sugar levels in the blood stream and, without it, glucose builds up in the blood. Its cause is still unknown.
After a battery of phone calls and doctor’s appointments, on April 28, 2015, Harden’s hunches were confirmed at Canmore Hospital.
“To be honest, it was too much to comprehend,” Harden said. “When I went to the Canmore hospital to have the gold standard test, it came back positive. The nurse told me it would be a serious factor for the rest of my life. That is when it sunk in.
“I called my mom and told her to bring a book. My blood sugar levels were so out of whack, they thought I would have to stay the night.”
He was told if he wasn’t a full time athlete, he would likely have had to stay in hospital for a day or two for observation. The diagnosis launched another flurry of appointments with specialists and medical professionals to help him get his diabetes under control.
His life would now include multiple daily insulin injections and four to six blood tests a day to help him manage his levels. As a high performance athlete, he requires less insulin than average users, but he definitely crashes hard if he misses a shot.
He then met with a sports medicine doctor who advised him to take the year off from high performance sport and address the day-to-day health concerns that come along with diabetes. Harden did not take that advice.
“I believe I have addressed the health concerns. To be fair, there is a limited understanding of how elite athletes cope with diabetes. There is still a lot of unknown about the disease,” Harden said.
There are many professional athletes with Type 1 diabetes at the highest level of sport, including American skier Kris Freeman and Swedish skier Robin Bryntesson. Bryntesson actually has a high performance ski team in Sweden for athletes with Type 1 diabetes, and wrote a long letter to Harden with many tips. Nelson Allen of Canmore Nordic, who also has Type 1 diabetes, managed to help Harden with advice. He was getting support from everywhere he looked.
“The big thing this experience has taught me and instilled in me is a thankfulness for the community, country and people I live with.”
After the diagnosis, Harden responded with a strong training season – one of the best of his career. Attending several training camps in remote locations, he was able to train at the Haig Glacier and the Snow Farm in New Zealand without much trouble at all. He has a protocol set up with his coaches in case his blood sugar goes too high or drops too low, and management went well over the summer.
“I have one more logistic to take into account when I train – keeping my blood sugar in an ideal range. That’s the most apparent concern day-to-day,” Harden said. “In workouts, intensity workouts, training camps, long skis, on top of the concerns a regular athlete would take, I have to take into account my well being as an athlete. I know when I screw up, because I feel it right away. If you screw up, you feel like crap.”
During summer, Harden felt he could manage the disease and still chase his Olympic and world championship dreams.
“You owe it to yourself to pursue the quality of life and plans that you have made for yourself. If health gets in the way, you can’t just count yourself out. You have to persevere through adversity. Sometimes that means taking a minute and realizing you need to ask for help. I’ve learned to do that more and more.”
He isn’t home free. His breathing and stomach problems resurfaced this fall, and he had to skip world cup trials in November. Although he did race a cross-country ski NorAm, he still hasn’t suited up for a biathlon race yet this season.
The experience has also opened up new dreams for Harden. He’s taking a look at new careers and considering life beyond sport with great interest.
“There is a lot on my plate to compete with my Olympic dreams. My new perspective on skiing is to enjoy it while I can. If it means going to the Olympics or world championships, I’ll be ecstatic. If it means skiing in Canada with my friends, that’s pretty good, too.”