Phil Southerland was just seven months old when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Doctors told his mom that he would be blind or dead by age 25. (Clearly, sugarcoating was not on that physician's agenda.)
35 years later he is the founder and CEO of Team Novo Nordisk, a global all-diabetes sports team of cyclists, triathletes and runners -- and an organization that includes the world's first all-diabetes professional cycling team made up of approximately 100 athletes from over 20 different countries that competes in over 500 international events every year. (The team's primary sponsor is Novo Nordisk, a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company whose products include diabetes care medications and devices.)
Novo Nordisk is also a team that hopes to compete in the Tour de France, professional cycling's marquee event, by 2021 -- just in time for the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of insulin.
"I'm lucky that I can follow my two passions," Phil says. "When I was 12, I found the bike. All I had to do was eat the right food and ride my bike. I developed a system for what to do before and after a ride, and it worked. That was incredibly freeing and liberating.
"Then in college I met a guy with diabetes and I helped him take control of it, and it felt really good to make an impact. This was back in the Lance Armstrong heyday when Lance was using the bike to build this amazing movement for cancer... and I thought, 'Diabetes needs this.' When I was growing up, I didn't have a hero who had been an example.
"I knew I wouldn't become that hero," Phil says, laughing, "but I felt I could create an organization that would provide great examples of what is possible for people with diabetes."
Team Novo Nordisk includes an 18-member development team and a 12-member junior team. This year they will bring in over 50 kids from 19 different countries to try out for those programs. "That is my hero factory," Phil says.
Combining two separate passions, and using cycling as the means, sounds great -- but it was far from easy.
I first met Phil in 2007 at the Tour of Virginia, a small stage race. Phil was running Team Type 1, a shoestring (and amateur) version of what has evolved into Team Novo Nordisk.
"When we went into professional cycling in 2008," Phil says, "the goal was to get to the Tour de France. We were probably a year away as Team Type 1, but then we got the chance to create an all-diabetic pro team. While that set us back some, we now have a stable group of riders who can race with the best in the world. Racing in the Tour is still the very clear goal of the organization. The 100-year anniversary of the invention of insulin is a marquee year for diabetes, because insulin is the drug that keeps us all alive. It was a defining moment for people with diabetes because, for the first time, there was life.
"I would like to create another defining moment for people with diabetes by having an all Type 1 team in the Tour de France," he says. "We have over 6.5 million followers on Facebook, we're one of the of the most visible cycling teams in the world... but we've only tapped 5 percent of the total diabetic population. I get emails from fans all the time about how we changed their life, how we gave them hope, how they actively manage their diabetes... but we need every person in the world with diabetes -- and their family members -- to know what is possible."
The numbers are, in fact, staggering. 415 million people have diabetes; add to that an average of two family members and 1.2 billion people are impacted by the disease.
"It's the individual's disease to manage," Phil says, "but it's a family dynamic. The role it plays in a family's life is huge. My wife thinks about it all the time. When my kids get older, they'll know about it and think about it."
That's why running an all-diabetic team is so important to Phil -- not just because he loves racing, but because he knows the impact greater visibility can have. And that's why he also founded the Team Type 1 Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting diabetes sports research, global outreach and education, and humanitarian initiatives in developing countries. For example, this year the foundation has awarded 91 college scholarships and provided testing supplies to people in Rwanda.
"We have to globalize access to medicine, information, and education," Phil says, "and getting to the platform of the Tour will help governments see that they can and should invest in diabetes research and education.
"If we can ride the Tour de France," he says, "we can do anything. Exercise is the billion dollar drug that never gets prescribed. If everyone with diabetes was out riding bikes... exercise and diabetes go hand in hand. We could stop this disease, and its complications, in its tracks."
How's that for purpose?