Scott Dunton, Diabetes at 16, and a Nationally Recognized Surfing Sensation at 21

| Mar 27, 2008

Professional surfer Scott Dunton, 21, has two missions in life: To keep climbing in the rankings as one of the world’s top competitive surfers, and to spread the word to children and teenagers everywhere that having diabetes doesn’t mean life’s joys come to a halt.

The first time he chats with us, he is nearing the end of a two-week inspirational speaking tour of 20 Canadian camps that cater to children and teens with diabetes. “I’ve told my life story so many times over the past few days that I’m starting to bore myself,” he laughs. But the kids he talks to love his speeches, and afterwards cluster around him, sometimes for as long as two hours, asking questions and getting him to autograph posters.

Today, though, he himself isn’t a particularly happy camper. It’s late winter in Canada, and Scott, who wears shorts almost year-round at his home on the balmy big island of Hawaii, has been watching the skin on his formerly tanned legs turn pasty white. “I’m not used to this cold weather,” he says, talking from a hotel room in Toronto. “I’m holding out for warm weather tomorrow in Vancouver.”

An Encounter to Remember

However, there is one thing that has warmed him greatly in Canada: the encounter he had the day before with a teenage boy at a Toronto hospital. What happened, he says, was a chance coming together that seemed to be an almost epic coincidence.

“I was at a clinic for diabetic children, talking to the kids there, when a nurse approached me and asked me if I would visit with a 13-year-old boy who had been admitted to the ER the night before.” On arrival, the boy apparently had been close to slipping into a coma. After a battery of tests the next morning, the boy learned that he had type 1 diabetes – only two hours before Scott arrived at the clinic.

“She asked, ‘Can you go in and cheer him up?’”

Scott entered the boy’s and introduced himself. “He was super sad and bummed out on life,” says Scott. “He barely mumbled his name when I asked what it was.” The already tense and emotional situation became even more so when the boy’s dad entered the room moments later, crying at the news of his son’s diagnosis.

Scott quietly began talking to the boy. “I told him that I knew how bad it sucks at first, and that I knew how he felt. But I also told him that it gets better, that even though he felt that all of the doors in his life had just been closed, they would slowly open back up. Eventually all of them would open back up.”

Heartened by Scott’s promise, the boy began talking about himself. “I learned that he had lived in Maui for a few months and had just come back to Canada only the week before. Technically that made us fellow Hawaiians, so we started talking about Maui and the schools there, and what beaches he used to like going to to watch surfers.”

For Scott, the experience was profound. “It was weird how much we were alike. I had never been in that position, to be able to come in and help somebody at such a difficult time.” It was, he says, one of the most profound coincidences of his life.

“We talked some more, and I showed him my video, where he saw me leading an active life despite my own diabetes. When I left, he was in a much better mood, talking and laughing. I gave him my e-mail address and asked him to contact me if he had problems or questions, or just to see what’s up.”

Tanning Resumes

Scott is back in Hawaii, clad in cutoffs and regenerating his tan, when he talks to us about the ins and outs of life as a competitive surfer with diabetes.

He enters about 50 competitions a year. Like all of the people he competes against, he can keep his combined seven or eight highest scores to achieve an overall international rating.  How long will he keep at it? “I can compete competitively until my mid or late 30s, so I still have a good 10 or 15 years left. Right now, I rank 119th in the world, out of the top 800 competitive surfers. I’m happy to keep on seeing how far up I can move.”

Surfing competitions take 30 minutes, so he tries to go out at a BG level of 130 mg/dl to 140 mg/dl – his trending is pretty solid, so he trusts those numbers. If he’s going out to surf by himself for two or three hours, he sets out at 150 mg/dl to 160 mg/dl. He keeps a pre-stocked cooler on the beach for emergencies, filled with Gatorade and Snickers bars.

His Closest Call

The greatest danger he ever ran while surfing is one that will resonate with many Diabetes Health readers. “Before I went on an insulin pump, I would take Lantus at 8 a.m. and then go surfing. One day before a competition I grabbed the wrong bottle and wound up injecting 20 units of fast-acting insulin without realizing it. Fortunately my mom was with me. When I realized what I had done, I sat and ate as much candy as I could for as long as I could.”

He says that sometimes people remark that it must be neat for him to occasionally be able to eat as many sweets as he wants. “But I think it sucks having to make yourself eat or drink a lot of sugar when you’re not hungry or in the mood for it."

Several companies sponsor him, and when people see their logos on his surfboard they realize he has diabetes. “I get every different type of reaction,” says Scott. “The most common one is being baffled: ‘How do you surf?’ They trip out on it because their impression of diabetes is what their grandparents had – you can’t ever eat sugar and you can never be active.

“Now it’s true that when you are diagnosed with diabetes, the biggest door that closes is food. It’s scary when you find that you can’t enjoy your favorite foods or believe that you may never be able to enjoy them again.” But he makes no excuses when it comes to eating. “Food makes me happy. My favorite food is sushi, which means I have to work around the rice it comes with.”

He says that he eats pretty much anything he wants. “I went from a careful carbo-counting diet after I was first diagnosed to eating what I want, providing I’m careful about taking into account how I’m going to balance it with insulin. His favorite breakfast is Fruity Pebbles, which he acknowledges are nothing more than sugar bound in starch. “But I love them – they’re so good! I take 12 units insulin a good bit beforehand, 20 or 30 minutes, eat the cereal and then go surf.” His carbohydrate ratio is 15 grams of carbs per unit of Novolog insulin. The insulin and surfing keep his levels under control.

His Ultimate Audience

One of added joys of surfing is that it has allowed Scott to travel extensively – to Brazil, Australia, Mexico, the mainland, the Caribbean, and even England and Scotland. Ireland beckons in the near future. For now he gets to share his traveler’s tales with diabetic kids, “sitting in hospital rooms, feeling bummed out on life, who need to see that life goes on.” But there’s one audience he especially looks forward to reaching one day: “I can’t wait until I have kids just to be able to show them my travel photos.”

Watching Scott Surf

Scott has an instinct for finding the perfect seam on a wave, that imaginary line halfway between its base and the top as it begins to curl over. As the curl comes roaring down, it creates a giant watery tube that hides Scott from view. Onlookers gasp and worry that the wave has swallowed him up.

But seconds later, Scott emerges from the tube, cool and calm, and races toward a spot where he can wheel 180 degrees, standing on his board at an impossible angle, to head back and ride the wave again.

Scott’s Diabetes Vital Statistics

  • First diagnosed with type 1 diabetes: Age 16 with a reading of 628
  • Current A1c: 6.8 His doctor takes him out to dinner each time he meets an A1c goal.
  • Preferred levels before a 30-minute competition: 130 mg/dl to 140 mg/dl
  • Preferred levels before a two-hour joy ride on the waves: 150 mg/dl to 160 mg/dl
  • CGM: MedTronic
  • Insulin pump: MedTronic
  • Foods in hypoglycemic emergency chest: Gatorade and Snickers bars
  • Current Clients: MedTronic, Allyance Clothing, SMT Surfboards, Esteem surf shops, and B Clear Diabetic Energy Drink
  • Insulin units per day (bolus and basal): 52
  • Typical breakfast: eggs, English muffin; sometimes cereal or pancakes
  • Typical lunch: fish. “I eat way too much fish.”
  • Typical dinner: fish and rice or meat and rice.
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Posted by Anonymous on 27 March 2008

Hello Scott - Awesome!!!!

My daughter, Michaela, is nine years old, was diagnosed at two. She is on a pump after being initially on Lantus and Humalog. We had the same experience when her mother accidentally switched the insulins...close call but I was there right after she was injected and bailed her out. Today
Michaela runs track, and is loving it.
Her 4X100 relay team broke a 17 year record last summer. Type 1 doesn't slow "Spirit" down. Black diamond skier, soccer, dance, chorus..type 1 doesnt slow her down a bit....but, every day, we pray for a cure. Michaela has surfed three times, getting up on a longboard, tandem with me, for the first time last summer.

I've surfed longboard for 20 years, and love communing with the ocean once in a while.


Dennis Crispin

Posted by Anonymous on 28 March 2008

Thanks for the comment Dennis, I am glad to hear that Michaela doesnt let it slow her down diabetes is a big hurdle for anyone to deal with and for a 9 year old girl to realize that life isnt over and her goals arent really going to change is amazing.
"machaela, keep up the great work in all you do. Even if you dont realize it or it doesnt feel like it you are always going to inspire people with how great your outlook on life is. Keep up the great work."
Scott Dunton

Posted by ctmom on 2 April 2008

I've just read your article and can't wait to share it with my 13year old son who was diagnosed just over a year ago. He is on insulin not wanting to try the pump right becuase he "doesn't want something attached to his body". He is very active and in tight control-with an a1c of 5.6- but some times he does get low- 50's when involved in his sports. I am looking forward to sharing your article with him. I believe often feels that there aren't enough diabetics that he can relate to who prove to all those out there that those with this disease are more than capable of living a full and active life. Thank you for sharing your story I know my son will be thrilled to have some one to look up to with diabetes.

Posted by Anonymous on 25 April 2008

Thanks it makes the days when diabetes just sucks alot better when you have a good support group and someone that shares your same goals. As a parent I am sure your son knows you want all his goals to be in reach but its nice to hear theres hope from someone else not just mom. I'm glad I can help.
Scott Dunton

Posted by Anonymous on 6 May 2008

Hello Scott:

My daughter was diagnosed last August while we were vacationing in Europe, she is almost 12 now and rides horses competing in Dressage. Sport is very important for anyone, but for diabetics especially since there are other health conditions you guys are at higher risk for... I started a Polish Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in Warsaw and as I am writing this message to you, I am also working on an inspirational article for the May 21st issue of Family Health Magazine. The article is to provide hope to all young diabetics in Poland, and to make sure they know that diabetes is not a limitation, and they can and should compete in any sport they choose or perhaps excelled at before the diagnosis. You are one of my examples and hopefully an inspiration and maybe even a future role model to many kids here.

Keep up the good work, Monika C

Posted by Anonymous on 6 June 2008

My 10 year old son (Zak) is a diabetic on the pump and loves the ocean and has begun to learn to surf. Thank you for your encouraging words. Your an inspiration.

Posted by AndyG on 9 November 2008

I have diabetes and also surf. I am considering going on a pump. If anyone can offer advice regarding this I would really appreciate it. Do you just take the pump off before getting in the water? I know the Animas pump is waterproof but I'm not sure if I would want to wear it in the water (maybe). Most of the time I'm in the water for 2 hours - but there have been times when I'm in there for three or four - is that too long to have the pump off?

FYI - I always tuck a GU Engery Gell pack in my wetsuit in casse I feel a low while I'm out in the water.

I'd really appreciate advice from surfers that use a pump.



Posted by Anonymous on 17 January 2009

Sorry I didnt see your post before. I would say whatever pump you think is best for your life style I surf almost everyday and my pump is not waterproof. I take my pump off before I surf and I dont have any problems. Surfing with a pump is kinda hard and more than anything it gets in the way. When you do surf just pay a little more attention to the way you are feeling like if your getting tired ask yourseld am I really tired or is my sugar level off. Alot of the time you will just let your body take the blame and it might be but it could also be a bad blood sugar. Glad to hear that you keep something with you. It seems stupid and you will get to a point when you ask yourself. Ok I havent used this thing before wehy should I keep it with me in the water. Trust me that one random day will come sooner or later and you will be so stoked that you have it.
AS far as pumps go. Try one. I promise you will be surfing more and feeling better. Its amazing what a change it has on your life. Try it and if you dont like it send it back but I think 99.9% of people keep theres and never want to take it off.
HOpe all is well, I dont know where you are but I surfed 20ft pipeline yesterday

Posted by Anonymous on 17 January 2009

Sorry I hit send before I put my name

Scott Dunton

Posted by Anonymous on 29 January 2009

You're a real inspiration... My 13-year old Son, Justin was diagnosed just last Friday, 1/23/09 and he's already been asking when his dad will take him surfing again. I think they may even go today after seeing your article. You have a great attitude and I think Justin is very much like you. It's my attitude that needs some work, but seriously after reading your article as well, I feel very hopeful! Thanks again for sharing your story and maybe one day, Justin can visit/surf with you in Hawaii!!!
Many Blessings to you!
~Nikki T.
Ventura County, CA

Posted by Donna Richold on 3 February 2009

I have a 15-year old daughter, Stacey, who was diagnosed at the age of 9. She and many other Type 1 Diabetics are going thru a rough stage right now and wanted to know if you had any advice or were willing to come to Bermuda to talk to them - both girls and boys. It would be interesting for you to talk to them about how you handle your sugars before and after surfing because of course we live on an Island and many do a lot of swimming, snorkelling, wind surfing, wake boarding etc. I'd really like to hear from Scott regarding this. I read about Scott in the Diabetes Health magazine that I was just able to get around to reading.
Donna R., Bermuda

Posted by Anonymous on 20 April 2009

Right on Scott. Keep representing the Big Island and diabetics. Good luck on the WQS.

Posted by Anonymous on 15 May 2009

Hi everyone. I just wanted to write with an event that is coming up that I host every year called Surfing With Diabetes. The event is an all day surf camp held in Laguna Beach CA.... I have recently moved from my home in Hawaii as crazy as that is to say. I moved to Florida my wife and I are having a little boy in a couple months and we wanted to be closer to her family. The waves are a little harder to find over here "well big waves" but Im still surfing and going to the beach almost everyday. But back to surf camp if anyone wants to take part in the event its JUNE 13th from like 8-8 a full day at the beach. The camp has been selling out in the first day or two for the last couple of years I would recommend checking in and seeing when you can register if you want to come. google "Surfing with diabetes" or the padre foundation and you can learn all about the camp and how and when to register.
Hope all is well everyone.

Posted by Anonymous on 3 June 2009

Hi Scott! I heard you are teaching a Laguna surf class June 13th. Surf deck chest-wedge marks where exactly to place on the deck for a beginner to paddle and creates an angle for the upper chest to paddle smooth to the pop-up. daughter likes it - she's at Canoes Oahu last summer (and she's wearing her pump!) we could swing by Laguna if you'd like to see one. aloha, Dennis

Posted by Anonymous on 9 June 2009

Stoked to hear about your management with surfing. I was recently diagnosed and am still wondering how things will work out with my surfing. Especially when winter rolls around and the surf gets big. I'm very active and since taking insulin I have a lot of lows so I'm a bit concerned about the spontaneity associated with surfing in that if I eat and take some fast-acting insulin and suddenly the waves are good it seems like I would be at more risk of going low while in the water. I would also love to know how you handle your travels with insulin when you go to Indo or other remote places.

Posted by Anonymous on 5 October 2009

Wow dude. Good article.

-Connor, Toronto, ON.

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