OXFORD, Miss. – Senior Ole Miss men’s tennis player Jonas Lutjen estimates he’s played in over 5,000 matches throughout his life. He has been ranked as high as No. 4 in juniors in Germany and as high as No. 5 in collegiate tennis, all while living with Type 1 diabetes.
The 22-year-old Schessel, Germany native has lived with diabetes for 19 years. He was diagnosed at the age of three.
“I found out I had diabetes because, when you have high blood sugar, you are really thirsty,” he said. “I was at my grandma’s house, and I was drinking Coke all day. She told me to stop drinking Coke and that I couldn’t have anymore. I locked myself in the bathroom and was just drinking tap water. That’s when my grandma knew there was something wrong, so we got it checked out, and found out I had diabetes.”
Type 1 diabetes is a disease that affects the pancreas. Some people are born with pancreases that do not have islet cells with the ability to produce insulin. Others are typically diagnosed with the disease following an illness in which the body fails to recognize its own tissues and inadvertently attacks itself in an attempt to ward off foreign invaders. Genetics and contact with certain viruses may also play a role in contracting the disease.
In addition to taking at least five insulin injections a day, one injection of slow-acting insulin in the morning and one at night and three injections of fast-acting insulin after meals, Lutjen also tests his blood sugar around 10 times a day, sometimes more, depending on the amount of exercise he gets. On average, he practices around 20 hours a week.
“On days that I play, I take less insulin, and from experience, I know how much to take and how much more I should take if I don’t do anything,” he said.
Lutjen said he does not remember a time when he did not have diabetes and that having no family members with the disease meant his family had to learn how to treat it once he was diagnosed. He now has a routine that allows him to effectively manage his blood sugars, eating the same types of meals at the same time of day and getting plenty of exercise, both of which keep Lutjen’s blood sugars stabilized.
“Sometimes it’s kind of hard to play with, but if you manage it well, you can deal with it,” he said.
Even with an effective plan, however, high and low blood sugars can still occur, sometimes during a match. In order to prevent his blood sugar from getting low while playing, Lutjen carries gummy bears and packets of sugar in his pockets and rehydrates with Gatorade.
“It’s hard to start a match when your sugar is low or high, and you can’t really give yourself an insulin shot,” he said. “It just takes a while to start working, so that’s what makes it hard, but the longer the match lasts the better I feel.”
Many people are surprised to find out that Lutjen has diabetes because he manages to keep his blood sugars stabilized while also having a successful tennis career.
The All-American and two-time All-SEC honoree has become one of the top collegiate players in the nation in both singles and doubles.
Just as impressive is the fact that he seems to humbly accept the disease as part of his life.
“The hardest thing is saying no to really good foods that are bad for you, but in general you just have to manage it and always take care of your body,” he said. “It took me a while to get used to it, testing my sugar and injecting myself, but it’s just what you have to do.”
Even Lutjen’s teammates were surprised to learn he was living with diabetes.
“I’m not even sure if all of them are aware I have it,” he said. “Some of them know, but for me, diabetes isn’t really something that sticks out. Sometimes they might see me test my blood sugar or take my injections, but I think they are used to it.”
Lutjen, who plans to turn pro after graduation, said diabetes should never prevent anyone from pursuing his or her goal of playing a sport.
“Actually, playing a sport helps you, because it keeps your sugar low so you take less insulin, and you’re more active,” he said. “For me the worst thing I could do is have a day without playing at all because my sugar would get high, and then I would have to take more insulin and could not eat as much. It helps me to live a better and healthier lifestyle. It makes me feel better.”
When asked if he believed he would have done anything differently without diabetes, he said, “my fingers would look a little nicer, but other than that, everything would be the same.”