UBC Thunderbirds' sophomore Jamie Hennessey (55) posted the fastest NAIA time this season in the 3,000m steeplechase, despite her Type 1 diabetes. (Photo by UBC athletics copyright 2019. All rights reserved).
Feature University Track and Field

UBC’s Jamie Hennessey: Despite her Type 1 diabetes, Thunderbirds’ courageous sophomore sits among the NAIA’s steeplechase elite

VANCOUVER — If you had asked Jamie Hennessey five years ago if she was capable of having a day like the one she had last month, she would have nodded a decisive “No.”

Yet there she was this past April 27th, crossing the finish line first in the 3,000m steeplechase, then finding out her winning time: 11:01.79.

It was a personal best. It is the second-fastest time this season in the NAIA, which is home to 251 universities and colleges. It was an instant ticket to the national championships later this month in Alabama. Only Anika Rasubala of Oregon’s Northwest Christian College has gone faster this season, and by just 29/100ths of a second (11:01.50).

To Hennessey, however, what was most important was the fact that five years after her initial diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, she was still every bit her vibrant self, meeting her challenges head on and not letting anything slow her passionate pursuit of life on the track.

“That was a pretty nice moment because I have struggled a lot with trying to manage this condition and also perform well in races,” the UBC Thunderbirds’ second-year middle-distance standout said Wednesday of her season-opening breakthrough race, part of the Ralph Vernacchia Invitational hosedt by Western Washington at Bellingham’s Civic Stadium.

“To race to my potential was a real validating moment for me,” continued Hennessey, 19, and a former high school star with the Maple Ridge Ramblers. “I was able to see a bunch of hard work come together with success despite a lot of challenges.”

UBC’s Jamie Hennessey has not let her physical challenges stop her from becoming a national title contender in the steeplechase. (Photo by UBC athletics 2019. All rights reserved)

In ninth grade, at the age of 14, Hennessey got her first diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and dealing with it, while trying to balance every other part of her young life — including a burgeoning love of middle-distance running — was to say the least challenging.

“Honestly, I just love track and field and even a week after I was diagnosed and wanted to quit because something in my body had changed, I can remember going to a meet and racing,” says Hennessey, who along with the rest of the Thunderbirds compete Friday and Saturday in Ashland, Ore., at the Cascade Collegiate Conference championships, the final meet of the season before NAIA nationals.

“I have never thought of not doing it,” she continued. “I have gotten frustrated and mad and been down because it’s a challenge. It’s something where no one else can really know what’s going on in my body. But honestly, I have just persevered through it because even though I have this condition, I want to chase personal bests.”

In doing so, she has become the best version of herself.

“Her first year (at UBC) was a real exploration in determining how to manage those blood sugar levels,” says UBC head coach Laurier Primeau of Hennessey, who has continued to blossom in her gruelling event under the watchful eyes of ‘Birds endurance coaches Norm Tinkham and Chris Johnson. “But it seems to me now that she has nailed it. And she’s made it cool for people with diabetes to know that you can be a part of a varsity team and be successful.”

That so-called “exploration” however, has not been simple.

Take her record-setting Saturday last month as an example.

Because her body doesn’t produce insulin, Hennessey must calculate her carbs, test her blood sugar and do manual injections.

“Since your body is constantly changing, you are forced to adapt to different scenarios, and as a result, your blood sugar can fluctuate out of range quite easily,” says Hennessey. “The challenges are trying to keep it within a certain range. That’s difficult because too much or too little insulin can spiral you into the out-of-zone range.”

While she has devised a protocol that works best for her, she is the first to admit that there are wildcards galore which can affect those blood sugar levels, including her mood, the amount of sleep she has gotten, the weather…

“One-hundred per cent,” she says of the existence of a litany of factors. “Typically on race day, nerves and anxiety play a huge part in my sensitivity to insulin and keeping my blood sugar in range. It’s harder in the heat, but anxiety is what can make it skyrocket. Those are the challenges.”

Jamie Hennessey, as a high school senior helping Maple Ridge to 4×400 relay gold at the 2017 B.C. championships, has found her stride as a steeplechaser in her sophomore year at UBC. (Photo by Wilson Wong property of UBC athletics 2019. All rights reserved)

Last season, as a UBC freshman, Hennessey qualified for nationals in what was her first season as a steeplechaser.

At the nationals, however, she fell into the event’s famed water pit and suffered a foot injury.

This season?

As Primeau likes to say, she has put a tough first year of university running behind her, and now she is set to begin building the second stage of her track career.

“She made it to nationals last year but not as a medal contender, so there has been a nice natural progression for her,” the head coach says.

“I also think we tend to expect too much from freshmen,” Primeau continued. “We just expect their improvement will be linear. Another coach once told me to consider it a win if a freshman can just repeat what they did in high school, with all of the changes in their lives from living away from home, and handling a new academic load. If you can stay the same and not regress, then you can expect the next three years to be so much better. Jamie has acclimatized and now she is taking off.”

Yet being diagnosed with diabetes five years ago was life changing, and it’s reflected not only in Hennessey’s determined ways on the track, but in her choices in the classroom as well.

Hennessey is studying in the faulty of Land and Food Systems where her major is in Food, Nutrition and Health.

“I love the faculty and learning about food and the environment,” she says. “I want to be a dietician. When I had to stay at Children’s Hospital, the dietician was my favourite person to see. I would just listen to their wide knowledge of how food affects the body and how eating certain foods can really make the difference.”

Just how rare is Hennessey’s condition among elite runners?

“I was talking to a friend the other day about how desperately I would love to find another person in track at my level to collaborate and share stories with,” says Hennessey.

And what would this national championship steeplechase hopeful and budding dietician offer as advice if there happened to be a younger runner with diabetes wondering if he or she has a chance to pursue the same passion?

“I would definitely recommend they not beat themselves up too much over those out-of-range days, and those bad (blood sugar) numbers,” she says. “Move on to the next day. Try something new. Keep looking for the recipe for success.”

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